Syrian refugees find a place of their own on the Danforth

It was September and the image of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old boy who drowned trying to flee Syria with his family, was making global headlines.

The image became a symbol for the millions of Syrians who were making desperate attempts to escape their war-torn homeland. For eight new mothers living in Toronto’s east end, the horrifying image struck a chord. They decided that something had to be done, and after an impromptu post on Facebook, East Toronto Families for Syria (ETF4S) came to life.

The women didn’t know each other before forming the group, but they bonded over a shared a desire to help Syrian refugees.

“When we saw images of children washing a shore, it really touched a cord,” said Jennifer Scott, one of the original members. “We were all new mothers. We made a Facebook group together saying there must being something we can do. We had a meeting and that’s how the organization was born.”

The group began gathering donations in their homes until they  realized they needed more space. Soon their wish was answered with a place dubbed, ‘The Hub.’

The Hub is a store on the Danforth donated to ETF4S by Remax Hallmark Realty and the Danforth East Community Association. It goes beyond being just a thrift store and serves as place for refugee sponsors, donors and newcomers to connect.

“We initially were looking for storage space, maybe even a locker, but when we were given ‘The Hub, we realized that we had a unique opportunity,” said Scott. “We needed to make it more than just a pick-up space.”

Caroline Starr, another founder of the group, hopes to  strengthen connections and resources for those who need them.

“Some sponsors have had their families arrive, others are still waiting, so we thought, you know, there are a lot of interesting opportunities for conservation and we’re happy to facilitate that,” Starr said.

Often sponsors will bring their families in so they can choose the items they need, whether it may be food, cooking supplies, clothes, toiletries and so on. Scott says it’s one of the elements they really enjoy.

“The difference between a blue cup and red cup might not mean something to us, but when everything is being given to you, the ability to choose amongst things is big,” she said. “I think it restores dignity to the process for a lot of people.”

The members encourage the community to drop off even the non-essential items, such as makeup, nail polish and razors, to help individuals feel “human again.”

“I can’t speak for every family and individual but what can I say is, to come from a place where you once were thriving, to then have your country torn apart and then live in a refugee camp, … you’re helpless to large extent,” she said.

“After after all of that, you’d think anyone in those situations would feel like a crucial part of their humanity has been taken away. To even have the little things now allows them to feel comfortable again. The ability to cook for your family … all of these things, I think contributes to to overall feeling of being hopeful.”

The group has since grown to 800 people, which includes sponsors, volunteers and refugee families.

“We have some people who have been here (in Canada) for two months or so,” Scott said.

“We had one woman who came with her husband and her two children and she’s been there every weekend for the past three weekends, helping us sort and translate. That’s the kind of activity we want to encourage. Her English in that period of three weeks has improved immensely. Her children have played with my children and interacted with other families. It’s been fantastic to see that and she really enjoys it.”

The organizers all have children under the age of two and are working full-time. Juggling the responsibilities of motherhood and work, while overseeing the Hub have proved to be challenging.

“It’s difficult,” Scott said. “We all feel tired but we all have really big hearts. We want to do as much as we possibly can and mothers often multitask and time manage. We do what we can to make it work.”

Members credit the the community of East Toronto for the success of the Hub.

“Without the community we wouldn’t exist,” said Scott.

“Yes the eight of us are facilitating the space but we couldn’t do what we’ve done without the community. We’re funded 100 per cent on donations. This has been a testament to the broader community.”