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In rural Canada, churches that once shunned one another open their hearts to Syrian refugees

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcomes Syrian refugees at Pearson International Airport in December 2015. Photo courtesy of the Prime Minister’s Office

 

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcomes Syrian refugees at Pearson International Airport in December 2015. Photo courtesy of the Prime Minister’s Office

DAUPHIN, Manitoba (RNS) Ken Yakielashek, a Roman Catholic and semiretired farmer in the Canadian Prairies, says he remembers when Christians of varying denominations “wouldn’t talk to one another.”

To Yakielashek, that makes what’s happened in Dauphin — a rural community 200 miles northwest of the provincial capital of Winnipeg — all the more remarkable.

A year and a half ago, three churches put aside theological differences and came together to sponsor the resettlement of three Syrian refugee families to this town of 8,500.

In the rural Canadian community of Dauphin, Manitoba, Cordell Lind, left, of the evangelical First Baptist Church and Ron Marlin of the mainline Dauphin First United Church put aside theological differences to focus on helping resettle Syrian refugee families. Joining in the effort was St. Viator’s Catholic Church, a parish of the Archdiocese of Winnipeg. RNS photo by Bobby Ross Jr.

“We have three different theological outlooks on things, but they’ve been pushed to the background,” said Ron Marlin, a lay leader for Dauphin First United Church, a liberal mainline Protestant congregation.

“The focus was very much on helping our neighbors in need,” agreed Cordell Lind, whose wife, the Rev. Lorayln Lind, serves as pastor for the conservative evangelical First Baptist Church of Dauphin.

In the United States, new President Trump’s effort to bar refugees from certain Muslim-majority nations deemed terrorism threats — including Syria — has dominated headlines for weeks.

But here in Canada, the government has welcomed more than 40,000 men, women and children fleeing Syria’s civil war since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s October 2015 election.

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“Canada is doing the right thing by providing refuge for those so desperately seeking safety,” Trudeau has said.

Back in September 2015, a 3-year-old Syrian boy named Aylan Kurdi drowned after a 15-foot boat ferrying him to a Greek island capsized.

Pictures of the toddler’s lifeless body on a beach horrified millions around the globe, including Yakielashek, a parish council member at St. Viator’s Catholic Church in Dauphin.

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Yakielashek said he felt a personal connection to the Syrian refugees because his Polish grandfather “escaped from situations similar to that in eastern Europe.”

“This isn’t right,” Yakielashek said he told his parish priest, the Rev. John Legitimas. “Somebody has to do something.”

Legitimas talked to the Rev. Richard Gagnon, archbishop of Winnipeg, and got approval to look into sponsoring a refugee family.

Siblings Roqayah and Hussein Alassaf in the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan before resettling in Canada. Photo courtesy of the Alassaf family

The same boy’s death spurred Dauphin First United Church to act: “That galvanized us to say, ‘OK, we can’t just write a check and send it somewhere else,’” said Marlin, a retired Royal Canadian Mounted Police district supervisor.

Meanwhile, First Baptist Church already had connections to the Middle East and was moving forward with plans to help, Cordell Lind said.

When the three churches learned of one another’s efforts, they committed to pool resources and share ideas where they could. The churches formed the Dauphin Interchurch Refugee Team — “which, by the way, has the acronym DIRT,” Lind said with a chuckle.

Siblings Hussein and Roqayah Alassaf test out new donated bicycles at their home in Dauphin, Manitoba, in 2016. Photo courtesy of Ron Marlin

While working together, each church maintained its individual sponsorship of a Syrian family. The refugees — 15 men, women and children in all, plus a baby born after their arrival — began new lives in Dauphin a year ago.

Months later, the Arabic-speaking immigrants — still learning English — told Canadian media that their church sponsors and other community friends had become like family.

“It feels like home,” Asya Alassaf, one of the Syrian mothers, told the Winnipeg Free Press.

“It’s good,” said Louai Alassaf, Asya’s husband. “Mainly, people are very nice.”

But not everyone.

Soon after news broke that the families were coming, a man made threatening telephone calls saying he hoped Dauphin First United Church “would burn in hell,” according to local media reports.

Still, most area residents — like the majority of Canadians in general — have responded positively, said the sponsoring churches’ representatives.

“It still gives me goose bumps when I think about it,” Lind said. After picking up one Syrian family at the Winnipeg airport, he said, “we stopped in a little town called Neepawa for a cup of coffee on the way home, and everyone in the McDonald’s had to come over to welcome them to Canada.”

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Ukrainian immigrants first settled in Dauphin more than a century ago, but the community has become much more multicultural in the last 15 years, Yakielashek said.

“For the most part, the reaction (to the Syrian refugees) has been welcoming from all walks of life, from doctors to lawyers to dentists to farmers to accountants to ordinary laborers and teachers,” he said.

Yakielashek’s attitude: “We’ve got lots of land here. We have lots of opportunities for the country to grow. Why can’t we bring people in here to contribute? I don’t expect them to have any more or less than we do, but just a chance at life.”

The three Syrian families that resettled in Dauphin, Manitoba, gather for a photo at a going-away celebration held for their interpreter at Riding Mountain National Park. Photo courtesy of Ron Marlin

Not only have the churches helped make life better for the refugees, but they also have built bridges drawing Dauphin’s Christians closer together, the representatives said. The Dauphin Interchurch Refugee Team is making plans to bring more Syrian refugees to town.

To be sure, the days of Christians refusing to communicate across confessional lines because of theological differences began to fade long before the refugees’ arrival. And the cooperation on their absorption didn’t remove the differences that remain.

For example, Marlin said Dauphin First United Church sees no need to proselytize the refugees — all Muslims.

“It’s not our job to convert them from their lifelong religion to another,” Marlin said. “It’s our job to support them in the celebration of their religion and the celebration of their humanity.”

Cordell Lind, on the other hand, said the First Baptist Church “would love for Mahmoud and Hala (the couple sponsored by the congregation) to meet Jesus.”

“So we pray for our family, and we pray for the other families and would be very excited if they did” become Christians, Lind said. “If they don’t, they will still be our lifelong friends and part of our family.”

This story is available for republication.

About the author

Bobby Ross Jr.

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