All you need is a box to have fun. But the three kids in this box are special.
They’re recent Syrian refugees (arrived in February in Victoria, BC, Canada) who were invited to a family-day welcoming picnic on Mayne Island, BC, Canada, where I spend my summers.
As a member of the steering committee that worked for months to make this event happen, I’m so proud it came off beautifully last week. So I’m sharing what I’ve written about the day below.
“This is my happiest day in five years,” one Syrian woman said.
On average, most spent three years in refugee camps before arriving in Canada. And many still have relatives trapped inside the country.
Please, when you reach the end of this article, consider sending money to contribute to our cause.
178 Syrians Picnic on Mayne Island
by Pam Withers
All 167 of Victoria, BC, Canada’s Syrian refugees said yes when offered the chance to do a family-day picnic on nearby Mayne Island July 13, 2016. With translators in tow and organized by the Mayne Island Syrian Refugee Support Group and the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society (VIRCS), they numbered 178.
It was quite a sight at the Swartz Bay ferry terminal near Victoria: A long parade of scarved, long-robed women with strollers and leaping youngsters, and men chatting excitedly in Arabic dominated the ferry line-up. En route, the Queen of Cumberland captain personally invited the children to tour the pilothouse.
Meanwhile, after months of planning, Mayne Island was prepared for the noon arrival. Terminal staff did much to ease traffic congestion, and dozens of island residents cheered as the ferry pulled in, while dozens more brought food to the potluck at Dinner Bay Park.
It took eight mini-bus trips to ferry all the visitors to the park, where the children piled out into the playground with shouts and smiles.
“It was lovely to see the park so full of life and so many children,” said Amber Harvey, an island resident who chatted with the picnickers through the roaming translators. One man asked her advice about starting a food-cart business, while a pharmacist awaiting Canadian re-qualification declared he’d like to settle on Mayne.
Members of the Lions Club cooked up 280 halal hamburgers while other volunteers offered women’s singing, yoga, kids’ face-painting, spider-web-making with yarn around trees, a drumming circle, pitch and putt and soccer games. (The Syrian male teens burst into applause when soccer was announced.)
All afternoon, Syrian and local kids with dripping ice cream cones shared the teeter-totter, the small visitors trying out their limited English on island youngsters. Moms, too, enjoyed the swings.
During lunch, one Syrian woman hunted down a translator to ask kitchen volunteers the name of a type of cress in one of the potluck salads she liked.
Well after arrival, one ten-year-old Syrian girl grabbed the mic and said, “Come closer,” then burst into “Oh Canada,” adding the words, “I love Canada.”
Ten-year-old Ayman Zahir stunned everyone with a vocal-percussion rapper song that islander Brian Crumblehulme ranked “New York City kind of talent.”
In what islander Alan Guy called a “magical moment,” a men’s drum circle organized by David Chase turned into an open-mic session with singers performing in Arabic and dancers of all ages rising to the occasion.
According to VIRCS case worker Ali Hamado, it was the first time in years these men had felt free to do what is a longstanding tradition in Syria.
Meanwhile, a small crowd of Syrians was leaning over the fence across the road to gape in delight at horses, and other guests were loading their plates high with islander-donated food, then coming back for more – especially more cherries and ice cream.
One 16-year-old boy who arrived in Canada only five months ago (and has a 21-year-old brother still trapped in Syria) volunteered to help pick up garbage and translate, and smiled broadly when a fellow volunteer from the island offered to give him a work reference for his initiative.
Fire and ambulance volunteers were popular for tours of their vehicles.
The women-only fitness dancing and yoga session drew a crowd of forty, two-thirds of them Syrian. During the session, some of the visitors treated their island hosts to Arabic songs and music.
“It started out as ‘how can we help you,’ but they turned it around. This has affected Mayne Island a lot,” Crumblehulme said. “There were island women crying at seeing these people just let go. And when they were getting on the bus, I was hugged by more guys than I have been in a year.”
One islander confessed to another, “I’ve met the ‘other’ and it has made such a difference to reducing misunderstanding and fear. You meet the ‘other’ and it’s you.”
“They shared pleasure, energy and joy with us,” Harvey said.
“This is my happiest day in five years,” one Syrian woman said.
“Everyone appreciated it so much,” said VIRCS staffer Samira Wanas, speaking for the new Canadians. “They knew it was from the heart.”
“It was incredibly well organized,” added Hamado. “The food was super excellent and plentiful, and the signs in Arabic and English made the difference for sure. It will never be forgotten.”
“Today I met a community that works together with deep kindness, commitment and social conscience,” said David Lau, executive director of VIRCS. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart for creating a most wonderful, kind and sincerely respectful day that has lifted our new friends and helped them understand the pervasive kindness of Islanders—especially Mayne Islanders!”
Colleen Proctor donated 60 silk scarves for the women, Famous Empty Sky put together art booklets for all the children with kits of art supplies to go with it, and Lush Cosmetics donated gift bags of beauty supplies to all the women. Victoria’s Wilson’s Transportation and BC Ferries subsidized transport.
By the end of the picnic, the Mayne Island Syrian Refugee Support Group had raised $13,000 toward its $20,000 goal to fund ESL classes for the group. VIRCS announced that September classes will serve pregnant women and mothers of small children, who need daycare in order to attend. Private donors funded all picnic costs so that donations could go entirely to the ESL project.
Anyone wishing to donate can make a cheque out to St. Mary Magdalene Church with “refugees” written on the bottom left; mail to 360 Georgina Point Road, Mayne Island, BC V0N 2J1. Receipts will be issued on request for amounts over $20.
Anyone who wonders how Syria came to such tragedy should read the following book: Crossing the Sea With Syrians on the Exodus to Europe by Wolfgang Bauer.
It’s gripping, moving and insightful. And its final chapter makes sense of how the chaos came to be.