Former CBC radio producers Jim Handman and Renee Pellerin had only one-week’s notice in March that the Syrian refugee family which their group had agreed to sponsor, was to arrive in Canada.
“We knew nothing about them, except that there were five of them,” Pellerin said, during an interview with journalism students at Centennial College’s Story Arts Centre in April.
The refugees were born and raised in Syria, Handman said, and were working elsewhere when the war broke out in Syria five years ago. They couldn’t return home because of the war, and couldn’t stay in the Middle Eastern country where they were working.
“They ended up in Ghana, Africa, on a temporary basis, to stay for four and half years,” Handman said.
Pellerin said their group, Kensington Assistance for Refugees, had been fundraising for months and collecting furniture and supplies, but when word came the family was arriving March 30, they had to move into high gear.
They had to make sure the family had food and enough supplies to get them going, she said.
“We had to arrange medical appointments, getting them into [public] school, and English classes for the parents, and warm clothes because it was pretty cold when they arrived,” Pellerin said.
The first challenge was to find immediate accommodation, she added. It took quite a bit of energy collecting all the donations that people had promised, she said.
The Toronto couple acknowledged that they had been moved to sponsor a Syrian family with children after the sheer tragedy of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, who was found dead on the beaches of Turkey. The couple joined an existing private sponsorship group, Kensington Assistance for Refugees (KARE), last year.
Handman said they have signed an agreement with the Canadian government that they will financially and logistically support the family for 12 months. He said they have raised money from hundreds of people, who donated $50 and $100 each and have raised more than $30,000 to date.
“That is to pay for their rent and their groceries,” Handman said.
He said kind people from around the city donated the furniture for the family. At the end of the 12 months, the Syrian couple and their three children are expected to be self-sufficient, he added. They are expected to have found work and to be supporting themselves by the 13 month.
“That’s the goal of the refugees program,” Handman said
As longtime employees of the CBC, Pellerin said she and her spouse tend to have a world view and see the big pictures.
“We are people that are naturally inclined towards areas where there are justice and human rights issues,” Pellerin said.
Handman worked for the CBC for 36 years, almost entirely in radio. He retired after producing an award-winning science program “Quirks and Quarks” for 17 years. Pellerin has also worked for CBC Radio for 33 years. She was an investigative journalist for social justice and health before becoming a producer.