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Syrian refugees aid Canadians caught in massive wildfire

Syrian refugees in Canada have taken part in a donation drive for those forced to flee the wildfire in northern Alberta
Organisers are asking people to donate personal hygiene items and basic clothing first (Walid Ajram)

TORONTO, Canada – When Naser Nader saw the fiery images coming out of Fort McMurray, Alberta, and the tens of thousands of Canadians forced to flee their homes with nothing, he knew he had to help.

Nader, a Syrian refugee who arrived in Calgary on 30 December with his wife and two young children, has lived through similar scenes, and he wanted to give back to the country that welcomed him and his family.

“The government brought us here and helped us a lot … and gave us a house and money,” the 33-year-old told Middle East Eye in a telephone interview on Friday. “We felt like we had to do something.”

A destructive wildfire has engulfed Fort McMurray, an oil town in northern Alberta, and the surrounding areas for several days, and the flames have forced most of the city’s residents – more than 80,000 people – to evacuate.

Upon seeing the destruction, Nader posted a message to the Syrian Refugees Support Group in Calgary. In both Arabic and English, he called on other Syrian newcomers to help Canadians displaced by the wildfire.

“Canadians have provided us with everything and now we have a duty,” Nader wrote.

‘Coming full circle’

Syrian refugees quickly responded to Nader’s call, and with the help of another Syrian newcomer to Canada, Rita Khanchet Kallas, he began collecting $5 pledges and other donations from families in the Calgary area.

“I am ready to collect the items by my car from the Syrian newcomers’ houses,” Kallas wrote on the Facebook page.

The money they collected has been used to buy basic items Fort McMurray families might need while they remain displaced, including hygiene products and clothing.

Syrian refugee Naser Nader (with his daughter, Juliana) said he wants to give back to Canadians that welcomed his family. (Courtesy: Naser Nader)

For Saima Jamal, a volunteer who co-founded the Syrian refugee support group in Calgary last year, the outpouring of generosity was vindication for nearly a year of hard work.

“When these people that we’ve been helping, who started off with nothing just a few months ago, when they stand up and they say that you know what, Canadians need our help … that just makes me feel immensely proud,” Jamal told Middle East Eye.

“That makes me feel that all the hard work that we put in the resettlement in the last few months is just coming full circle. It feels like everything that we did was worth it.”

99 Hampers of Hope

Canada has resettled nearly 27,000 Syrian refugees since 4 November 2015.

Walid Ajram and other volunteers collected donations for Syrian refugees arriving in Calgary earlier this year, including delivering about 150 hampers filled with goods that Syrian families might need in their new homes.

When Ajram saw the emergency developing in northern Alberta, he and co-volunteer Charis Curtis decided to replicate the hamper campaign, this time dubbing it “99 Hampers of Hope YMM,” the three-letter airport code for Fort McMurray.

Hampers and other donations are being collected at a handful of locations in Calgary and nearby towns on Saturday, and they will then be delivered to the shelters hosting displaced families in Edmonton or Lac La Biche, Alberta.

The first priority is to help women and children, Ajram explained, so volunteers are asking for personal hygiene items, children’s diapers, underwear and socks, and other clothing.

“Really, they are like refugees. They had to leave home in less than 15 minutes, so they got nothing with them,” Ajram, who came to Canada from Syria in 2005 and is now a Canadian citizen, told MEE about the evacuees.

He said that Syrian refugees in Calgary have donated whatever money they can to support the hamper campaign.

“They have nothing and they’re trying to help. They’re trying to show Canada that we appreciate what you did for us, and now we’re trying to pay it back,” he said.

Ajram stressed, however, that Syrian refugees are one part of the wider community that has responded to the crisis. He said he has received calls from people in Ontario and other parts of the country asking how they can donate.

“I was shocked three or four months ago when I saw how Canadians reacted to the Syrian crisis … We were getting support from everywhere. I’m not shocked this time because this country is great,” he said.

“I’m not shocked at people helping because that’s what they do.”

Wildfire grows to 85,000 hectares

The destruction in Fort McMurray continued on Friday, as the wildfire continues to send plumes of smoke and ash into the air. More than 1,600 homes and other buildings have been destroyed in Fort McMurray so far, forcing many families to flee without a single possession.

At least 300 firefighters are battling the flames from the ground and air, but forestry officials say the blaze cannot be contained without significant rainfall. On Thursday, officials said the wildfire had grown to about 85,000 hectares in size.

The Canadian Red Cross said on Thursday it had raised $11 million for local relief efforts, while the federal government announced it would match individual donations to the group.

Jamal said about 40 Syrian refugees have put their names forward to help Fort McMurray, which many refugees have begun calling “Oil City”.

She said she expects some refugees, including many who have yet to start working in Canada due to a lack of English language skills, will want to help rebuild Fort McMurray once residents are allowed to return to the city.

“It’s just been amazing to see them starting the initiative themselves,” Jamal said. “It just tells you that even when you have so little to give back, if you have the right attitude, if you have the right heart, you can give anything, even as little as five dollars.”

She said the support demonstrates how ready Syrians are to give back to the Canadian communities that have welcomed them.

“They are a huge gift to us,” Jamal said, “and what they are doing here in Calgary is an example that is being set all over the world”.

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