A Hutterite woman chronicles the arrival of Syrian refugees

Oct 3, 2016 by and

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(Feb. 18, 2016) We try to imagine how it will be to travel home from Winnipeg, a 2 ½-hour trip, with a family of four who doesn’t speak our language! We’re a bit apprehensive but hopeful that our hand gestures will help.

We stand waiting, and my dad texts me that the flight we’re waiting for is just over Steinbach. We look at each other like kindergarten children, not willing to risk that long waterslide. How do we suitably greet these exceptional people? We stand together, four people with one big heartbeat of emotion. Enes and his wife were refugees; Paul’s and my relatives from even longer ago were refugees, also.

From left: Raghad Riad Al Hamoud, 4, Elaine Hofer and Najwa Hussein Al Mohamad. — Loreina Hofer

While we stand there with our signs, teddy bears, and Fata’s thoughtful mini rose bush, people come up to us and greet us: “Are you welcoming new Canadians? Well, you just made my day!”

Another lady approaches us and asks if we’d be offended if she could donate money to help our family. When we assure her that would be wonderful, she offers us an envelope with $200. A lady from a Mennonite church in Winnipeg excitedly realizes who we’re waiting for and says she is awaiting a family identical to ours. She offers to be an interpreter if we need her.

We stand and wait. Some flights carry up to 500 people on one airplane — an airbus. We witness one incredible greeting ritual after another. Different ethnic groups, different cultures have different rituals. One culture simply nods their heads, no hugs. Others have tears, long hugs and we hear one older gentleman loudly exclaiming, “You must be my wife!”

Finally, a young family with two children in bright yellow coats! Oops, there’s another family in red coats, also with two small children. Which one is ours? We shuffle and hold on to our signs and teddy bears to help us grasp the moment.

Paul urges me to capture moments with my camera. But there’s too much emotion for me. I try to take photos but don’t do a very good job. Also, I am worried that they might be offended; they don’t know me and there they stand, looking so vulnerable and afraid.

Enes firmly and confidently reaches out his hand in greeting to Reyad. And Fata, in a completely natural gesture, kisses Najwa on her cheeks a few times. I follow suit, but I am not as graceful as Fata, as it is a ritual unfamiliar to me.

Reyad and Najwa look very, very scared. They are beautiful. They stand waiting for us, and it seems that it takes all their strength just to be there. Their children huddle close to the adults’ legs, with big, innocent, luminous eyes. What had they gone through? We smile welcoming smiles, yet I feel like crying. We can’t speak to them to reassure them, to tell them how supportive we are, how excited. Paul reaches for the interpreter’s help. Reyad quickly expresses his fear about us not knowing their language. Our interpreter is able to reassure Reyad that we had a computer app that would translate Arabic to English. It suddenly became a lifeline. And then Reyad was able to smile.

Enes was phenomenal with gestures right off the bat. Gestures go a long way. The interpreter told us that Najwa knows some English. Great! The men weren’t as full of emotion, or so it seemed. They switched into “let’s-get-things-moving-here” mode. Fata drew in the children while I stood frozen in all that was surrounding me. Fata exclaimed, “I already see that they like me!” Reyad and Najwa watched us bond with their beautiful, brown-eyed children.

We were safe and close in our old Nellie van, away from the airport. I somehow thought that soft seats and the warm heater blowing would soften some of the utterly frightened feelings they must have had. It was very cold outside. And I wished it weren’t so dark; in the dark everything is magnified. Whom did they leave behind? What had their lives been like up until now? How long did they wait for this?

We quickly pick up on Najwa’s determination. And it fascinates and reassures me. She wants to know if we’re married and how many children we have. She wants to know all about us, and she laughs when we are puzzled by her curiosity. Fata and I relish her laughter.

Paul drives and he and Enes make plans for the next couple days of accommodating and supporting the family. The interpreter helps us along, and they nod thankfully over and over as we explain how long the ride home is, and where they will be staying. Fata tells the interpreter, “Please, reassure them they are safe with us.”

We get home to Fata and Enes’s home at midnight. The children, Raghad, 4, and Ali, 3, lie sprawled like snow angels, bundled up in snowsuits fast asleep on the couches. Enes’ quips and easy nature make things comfortable and welcoming. We don’t even need a warm heater blowing here; the atmosphere is inviting. We look at each other. We’re here; this is really happening. Our family is here!

The day before, there was a miscommunication with Mennonite Central Committee about the flight date. Now, MCC calls to make sure we did pick up our family. I think to myself: It’s an amazing system, where everything is so carefully looked after. Thank you, Canada.

Wanda Waldner (left), Najwa Hussein Al Mohamad, Elaine Hofer, sitting. Reyad Alhamoud, Paul Waldner holding Lee Waldner, 1. — Ava Waldner

Many years ago our ancestors came as refugees. Paul and I stem from that place. If Canada hadn’t welcomed Hutterite refugees, many of us wouldn’t be here today. Fata and Enes came to Canada 20 years ago from Yugoslavia. They didn’t have a smartphone app to help them interpret. “There were many tears,” reveals Fata. The stories of both immigrant families are poignant and moving. Same experience, different eras.

I say to Fata, “We Hutterites struggle with marrying and moving to another colony, where we can expect the same structure, the same foods, and much common ground.” When I try to visualize moving to a completely different, unknown country, now that takes change to a whole new level!

This day, my list of heroes grew. First, there’s Enes and his wife, Fata. They are our Wawanesa friends and neighbors. They graciously opened their house to our refugee family for an indeterminate, “long-as-is-necessary” amount of time.

My other new heroes are Reyad and Najwa, for their courage to come to Canada from Syria — such a brave and difficult change.

And there’s Paul. Sometimes people from our everyday life become heroes all over again. As Fata said, “Paul stood there beaming when he saw the refugee family on the escalator, and he hasn’t stopped since!” Thank you, Paul, for having the audacity to fuel this extraordinary journey.

We say good night to our refugee family. Simple words feel good, and Najwa replies good night to us in English. I could have said it 10 times. It was a gesture we could give and receive. A way of sharing and receiving love and caring — our calling here in this world.

They are Muslim; they are gentle, grateful and respectful. Reyad and Najwa have a strong connection to each other; they help each other interpret our foreign English and urge their children to connect with us and hug us. We are excited to learn about their life and religion, and to learn from them. This has been incredible. It’s been about vulnerability, trust and communication. It’s about taking risks and daring to love and serve. It’s about risking trust and daring to receive love. Es ist wunderbar!

Elaine Hofer and Paul Waldner are members of Green Acres Colony, near Wawanesa, Man. Their Hutterite colony, along with Enes and Fata Muheljic of Wawanesa, worked with MCC Canada to sponsor a family from Syria. Hofer’s journal entry was released Sept. 30 by MCC.

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