PEERS in need are peers indeed

East Yorkers work together to sponsor a refugee family

Core members Nina, Marjorie, Michael, Jennifer, Rachel, Carrie, Sarah and Mike pose after the meeting had come to an end.
Core members Nina, Marjorie, Michael, Jennifer, Rachel, Carrie, Sarah and Mike pose after the meeting had come to an end. (Bria John)

A group of East Yorkers has decided to go from helpless to helpful: they’ve banded together to sponsor a refugee family from Syria.

On Nov. 19, about 30 members of the People of the East End Refugee Support Group (PEERS Group) met for the first time at the Fox and the Fiddle on Danforth Avenue to delegate tasks.

After seeing the photos of drowned Syrian boy Alan Kurdi face-down on a Turkish beach this summer, Nina Okens started the group with her friend Sarah Rotering.

“Many of us are self-employed so that helps, but we know that we can’t do it alone; that’s why we’re meeting tonight,” Okens said.

The group has eight core members that manage the day-to-day necessities and about 230 members on the Facebook group that will contribute in various ways over the next year.

“Many hands make light work,” said Okens’ brother, Patrick.

As people floated around on Nov. 19 putting their names on lists for items needed to make a home, or as drivers, or for miscellaneous help, there was a sense of relief.

“I was so overwhelmed by the news and futility that I felt useless as a person, and there was nothing I could do about it. Now I can absorb the news because at the very least I can help one family,” said Marjorie Chan, one of the core members.

“We got started because it felt like the government wasn’t responding the way Canadians wanted,” said Mike Wallace, Rotering’s husband and core member.

So far PEERS Group has raised $35,000 — and they have a case identification number. They’re fifteenth in line on a list of hundreds of private sponsor groups, which means their family could come early next year.

“There are still a lot of question marks. We don’t know what our family will look like or be like. But it’s all about what the family wants,” Okens said.

The isolated harassment of some Muslims in Toronto since the attacks in Paris has only hardened the group’s resolve. Okens posted in the Facebook group that anyone who felt unsafe attending would be provided with transportation, a post she wished she never had to write.

“It personally makes me very angry. Every Canadian has felt a little piece of the immigrant and refugee experience but it seems like some have forgotten. There’s no room for cowardly behaviour like this in Canada,” Okens said.

“Now is a time to stand with [the Muslim community] and be present for them,” she said.

Some members joined because they just wanted to pay their privilege forward.

“I’ve lived a very privileged Canadian life, maybe that’s what makes me feel the need to help. It’s just a no-brainer. Of course I’m going to help. This is what our country is about, this is what makes it beautiful,” said Tawnya Halman, Rotering and Wallace’s neighbour.

Others have personal experiences with refugees in Canada.

Matthew Hall’s partner came to Canada with her family as refugees from Vietnam.

“She lived in a camp in Hong Kong for two years so she couldn’t just sit on her hands when she heard about this,” he said.

Leah Bowen’s family was part of a church group in Spruce Grove, Alberta that sponsored a Vietnamese family in the ’80s. She remembers playing with the kids and helping set up the family’s home. She’s donating some kitchenware and her time as a driver for the incoming family.

“It’s something significant you can do to the fabric of Canadian life,” she said.

As more people walked into the pub throughout the night, the core members sighed relief.

“We’re inviting a family, we hope, to a community. Everyone is here because they care and want to help. When they come it can be to a welcoming place,” said Chan.

Bowen said it’s important to stay realistic though.

“It’s important to not have an idealized picture of a family and be realistic. We want to reach out, but they might not be open to it. We don’t know their trauma. We have to remember not to get too romantic about saving refugees,” she said.

Okens said they’re sure they’re helping a family but the group is going to learn a lot along the way.

“Our lives have already cracked open and the family’s not even here yet,” she said.