Members of Grace Mennonite Church and Masjid An-Noor have been busily working since September to bring a refugee family to Canada.
The two religious communities — awaiting a Syrian family of four — combined their individual strengths in volunteering, fundraising and experience to create the Bridge of Hope partnership.
“We put what we have with what they have,” said Ezeldin Ebadalla, president of Islamic Society of St. Catharines.
“We put it all together and said, let’s work together and give hope to one or two families to come to Canada and start a new life here.”
The unexpected partnership was celebrated Saturday with a friendship breakfast at Grace Mennonite Church on Niagara Street, drawing about 90 people from the church and mosque. It followed an earlier pot-luck dinner at the mosque on Geneva Street for both communities.
“You look around the world and you see so much animosity between various religious groups and within religious groups. Here we have two religious groups standing together to do something to benefit a family,” said David Brubacher, Pastor of Grace Mennonite Church.
The partnership began last fall after Ebadalla went to a public meeting about sponsoring refugees at the Niagara Folk Arts Mulitcultural Centre, something in which the Mennonite Central Committee was involved.
He said Doug Schulz from Grace Mennonite Church asked him afterwards if the mosque would be willing to co-sponsor a family. Members of the two communities sat down to talk and the partnership took off from there.
“We’re saying we’re all neighbours,” Schulz said. “Let’s become friends.”
They created committees to do fundraising, organize volunteers, file the sponsorship application, look into settlement services, organize transportation and get an apartment and furnishings for a new family.
The productive meetings were also an education into each community. “I love the way we also took the time to know each other,” Ebadalla said.
Not everyone embraced the idea of the mosque and church working together.
Both Ebadalla and Brubacher said there were members of their own faith groups in the beginning who were skeptical of the venture.
But far more were for the partnership than against it.
The mosque and church’s strengths and weaknesses balanced each other off.
Ebadalla said the Mennonite Central Committee has sponsored refugees for years and has the resources and experience to do the work. It’s a big responsibility to bring people to Canada to settle and have a new life, he said.
“We did not want to go on our own and try to invent the wheel.”
What the Islamic society has is people who share the language and culture of the refugees, along with the energy of a younger community.
Brubacher said the church congregation is largely made up of seniors who have a desire to help and some financial assets to help, but don’t have the personnel or physical stamina to do all the work that comes with sponsoring a family.
“Welcoming a family with young children would not be as challenging for them as us,” he said of the mosque’s younger community.
“It just sounded like a win-win.”
Both groups have volunteers and have contributed financially. Schulz said they’ve raised $60,000, about half each.
Their application to sponsor a family together was approved in January. They’re now awaiting a couple with a five-year-old son and a two-year-old girl.
“We were hoping that they would be here early February but unfortunately, they are not here yet,” Ebadalla said.
In fact, Bridge of Hope members don’t know if the family will arrive next week or in 2017.
They’re trying to decide if they should pack up the north-end furnished apartment, complete with toys, and put the items in storage for now.
St. Catharines MP Chris Bittle, speaking at the breakfast Saturday, told those gathered he knows they’re frustrated and has passed along the message to Canada’s immigration minister in person and in caucus. He said the minister understands their frustration and is working on it.
In the meantime, Bridge of Hope partners plan to continue to work together.
“The family didn’t come as scheduled so we said, ok, we can not just sit on our hands waiting for this. Let’s do something,” Ebadalla said.
There is talk about sponsoring a second refugee family. They’re also looking into helping the local St. Catharines community through poverty or social justice initiatives.
“We’re using this time to strengthen our relationship and see what we can do together,” Ebadalla said
The joint committee continues to meet every other Tuesday, alternating between the mosque and the church.
“We had such good momentum initially and enthusiasm and we want to keep that going,” said Brubacher, explaining that’s one of the reasons they held the breakfast.
“To keep that bridge of friendship alive, we work together.”