By Susan Pedwell in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
When images of bombings and injured civilians in Syria flashed across Tyler Berglund’s TV screen, he felt compelled to act. “I wanted to do my part to compensate for the injustices of war,” says Tyler.
Over the past two years, he has done just that by helping to sponsor two Syrian refugee families so they can start a new life in his hometown of Hamilton, southwest of Toronto.
He started out by Googling “sponsorship” and learning that overseas, UNHCR identifies potential Blended Visa Office-Referred (BVOR) refugees for resettlement to Canada. The BVOR program makes it easier for private sponsors to help the most vulnerable refugees.
To qualify for sponsoring refugees and their dependents through the BVOR program, you must form a group comprising Canadian citizens or permanent residents. So, Tyler formed what BVOR calls “A Group of Five,” which includes his sister Julia and three employees at Hamilton’s Doors Pub, which Tyler, a heavy metal fanatic, owns.
“Technically, we weren’t five people, we were more than five people,” says Tyler. The co-sponsors include Shannon and Caleb Collins, James Mallory and Cheyenne Griffin. “Everyone was surprisingly easy to convince to help sponsor. I was very surprised by it.”
The sponsors must provide six months of financial support, including six months of rent. Tyler had come into some money from their father’s business, and at first Tyler was going to assume all of the costs himself. But his co-sponsors wouldn’t let him. They all contributed financially from their savings.
“I knew sponsoring a family was going to be a big undertaking, but I had no idea how big”
“I knew sponsoring a family was going to be a big undertaking, but I had no idea how big,” says Tyler, 34. “It keeps me busy, but I feel really strongly that I have to do it.
“It creates quite a bit of stress,” he continues. “No one in our [sponsorship] group speaks Arabic, and that can cause a lot of miscommunication.” But the group members have mastered some Arabic phrases, and since both sponsored families are studying English it is becoming easier and easier for them to communicate.
First, Tyler sponsored the Muslim Hamo family, who fled their home in Kobanî, Syria, in 2012. Gol Bahar, her husband, Dalil, and their two daughters, Noursin and Brojista, escaped to Turkey and then Lebanon.
In June 2018, the family flew into Toronto Pearson International Airport with only the clothes on their backs. “We brought our memories,” adds Gol Bahar, through a translator.
“At the airport, we were wondering: ‘Where are we going to stay tonight?’ We didn’t know anyone would be there for us,” says Gol Bahar. “Then we met Tyler and his friends.”
Tyler had emailed the family to tell them he would be meeting them, not knowing they didn’t have access to the Internet.
“When we arrived, everything was prepared for us,” recalls Gol Bahar. “Tyler took us to his home and had a meal ready for us.” Then he drove the family to an apartment, furnished with the help of St. Giles Presbyterian Church in St. Catharines, which also raised money for clothes.
“At first, we had to follow Tyler around,” says Gol Bahar. “In time, I started picking up the language, and I started being more and more independent. Then we started to go out without Tyler helping us.”
The second family Tyler helped sponsor was also surprised to find them at the airport. Although it was more than a year ago, they remember it as if it was yesterday.
“We didn’t know we had sponsors,” said Amena,* through a translator. “We didn’t expect anyone would be waiting for us, but then my boys saw a big sign with my name on it. We were so excited!”
The family of four fled Syria in 2012 and had been staying in Jordan. “We never thought in our wildest dreams that we would be living in Canada,” says Amena. “But here we are!”
Tyler knew exactly what the three teenage boys needed. “He got us a PlayStation,” said Zayn* with a wide grin.
“And Tyler takes us on outings,” he continues. “We go to the lake. Or he invites us to his house for dinner or takes us to a restaurant.” Tyler also plays soccer with the boys; then, language doesn’t matter as they run and bump each other out of the way trying to score goals.
“At first, we had to follow Tyler around. In time, I started picking up the language, and I started being more and more independent. Then we started to go out without Tyler helping us.”
Gol Bahar admits to knowing nothing about Canada before arriving. But she had one burning question: Will my kids be safe?
After fleeing Syria, she recalled a harrowing moment where she thought she’d lost one of her children.
Her daughter Noursin, then four, wandered off in pursuit of a cat. Barefoot, the child walked along a highway and no one stopped to help. She entered a field where people were picking cotton. No one helped until the little girl was about to wade into a lake. “She was lost for eight hours, from two until 10,” recalls Gol Bahar.
In Hamilton, Tyler went with the family to the school to register the two girls. Noursin, now nine, and Brojista, now eight, are happy at the school, but Gol Bahar’s anxiety about their safety frequently leads her to check on them there. “Just ask the school principal,” she laughs.
On Halloween, Julia took the girls out trick or treating. But first, Gol Bahar and Julia helped dress up Brojista as a butterfly and Noursin as a cat.
Of course, the girls loved the candy they collected, but what they’re really crazy about are Tyler’s cats, which they get to play with every time Tyler invites the family over.
“In Canada, I consider our sponsors our family.”
“I want to thank Tyler,” says Gol Bahar. “In Canada, I consider our sponsors our family.”
As for Tyler, he is moving to New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, in search of a simpler life. Already, he has introduced himself to Pictou County Safe Harbour, which runs refugee sponsorship programs in the community.
“Being a sponsor is the most meaningful thing I’ve ever done,” says Tyler. “Of course I’ll continue being involved.”
*Names changed for protection reasons.