Students at UMEI Christian High School are experiencing what it means to be a newcomer to Canada first-hand. The Faith in Action club has been learning about the war in Syria and the resulting refugee crisis for the last year. “I am eager to keep students informed and passionate about what’s happening in the world,” said the club’s leader, Mrs. Chani Wiens. “However, I was anxious to find ways to be active in welcoming newcomers to Leamington. I think it’s so important to model putting our faith into action – hence the name of the club.” Wiens was excited to hear that the North Leamington United Mennonite Church was in the process of sponsoring a Syrian refugee family through Mennonite Central Committee. When they were matched with family living in a refugee camp in Lebanon, she involved the UMEI students in preparing for their arrival. “We made signs in Arabic welcoming them to Canada,” explained Grade 12 student Camden Driedger. “We wanted them to know we are making the effort to understand them and their background.” The club also welcomed South Essex Community Council settlement workers Badiah Abdelnabi and Sylvana Sleiman in a presentation after school. The Arabic-speaking workers told stories of their experiences working with Syrian refugees settling in Leamington, and also shared some Muslim faith and cultural practices with the students. “Being in our small community, we don’t know a lot about the Muslim culture so it was cool to learn about that,” said Grade 11 student Hayden Epp. “It helps us better understand our new family.” Elle Klassen, also in Grade 11, was surprised at how quickly newcomers are expected to integrate into Canadian life. “It made the whole process seem more real,” Klassen explained.
The Faith in Action club planned a bake sale to raise money for a welcome package for the 12 year old newcomer. “Through communication with the family, we learned that she is an artist, so we purchased art supplies and a tablet with the $400 we raised,” said Wiens. “We wanted her to know that there is a big group of students who care about her feeling at home here.”
When Wiens heard the family was arriving on April 12, she was excited to be able to invite 16 students to welcome them at Windsor Airport. They brought their welcome signs, the gift, and some traditional Mennonite baking to welcome the family of 3. Students describe the experience as “incredibly powerful.” “We already knew they were people just like us and that their lives in Syria were just like ours here,” said Klassen. “But when you see them come off that plane, and shake their hands and say hello, it gets rid of the stigmas that still exist in your head – stigmas that you weren’t even aware still existed.”
UMEI students look forward to continuing to welcome the new family to Leamington.