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Support for Syrians

A note found in a donated jacket spurs a lifelong relationship and sows hope for Syrian refugees

Shawkat Hasan was just seven years of age, living in a suburb of the ancient city of Ramla, when civil war broke out in 1947 between Jews and Arabs in British-ruled Palestine.

Between 1947 to 1948, 700,000 Palestinians were driven out of their homes and pushed further east to the Arab-held part of Palestine and to neighbouring countries. Many ended up in refugees camps established by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). “I remember the only thing in our minds was how to survive,” says Hasan, a Richmond, B.C. resident and vice president and director of social services of the B.C. Muslim Association (BCMA).

Hasan’s father, Ali, was a farmer and used to working with his hands. Rather than live in the UNRWA shelters made of asbestos, Ali built a tiny mud and stone house for his family. Like other Palestinians; however, the family depended on the Red Cross for food and clothing. One day, Hasan’s father discovered a note in the pocket of a donated jacket. It was written in English, so Hasan took it to his schoolteacher to translate. The note was from Isaac Braun of Abbotsford, B.C., who had scribbled, “Whoever receives this, please write me back.”

With the help of the teacher, Hasan responded to Braun in English, explaining who he was, his circumstances, and his hopes for the future. Braun replied, sending a $20 Canadian bill, and a photo of his family and home. “It looked like paradise,” Hasan recalls.

The note in the jacket was the beginning of a life-long friendship between Braun and Hasan: one older, Mennonite, and Canadian; the other young, Muslim, and stateless. The bond was strong, and Braun, through his Mennonite connections, helped Hasan attend Bethel College in Kansas, where he achieved a degree in business administration. Hasan then attained a master’s degree in communications from Southern Methodist University in Texas. This led to Hasan’s employment at the United Nations Refugee Agency in Vienna as a media relations officer, documenting the plight of those whose circumstances he knew all too well.

When Hasan’s daughters reached university age, he decided to move to Canada. By now, his longtime friend and mentor had died; however, Hasan became friends with Braun’s son, Lorne, an international aid worker living in Richmond, B.C. Hasan’s integration into Canadian society was almost seamless. He became a chaplain with the Correctional Service of Canada and ran twice as an NDP candidate in Richmond East against veteran Liberal MLA Linda Reid.

“This is the good thing about Canada — you have the same rights as everybody else as soon as you step onto the ground”
—Shawkat Hasan 

“This is the good thing about Canada — you have the same rights as everybody else as soon as you step onto the ground,” Hasan says.

The entire family: Hasan’s wife, son, and three daughters (one daughter, Abeer Hasan, is a lawyer at The Hague) chose Coast Capital Savings Credit Union (527,496 members, $13.3 billion in assets) as their financial institution.

“The credit union takes the extra step in accommodating your special needs. They give you confidence that they will deal with you as one of them,” Hasan says. But it was Hasan’s work with the BCMA where he really started to, as they say, pay it forward. The protracted Iraq War, which began in 2003, resulted in four million displaced persons. Thousands came to Canada, and Hasan helped resettle many of them in B.C. Now, as chair of the BCMA’s refugee division, Hasan is overseeing the settlement of about 3,000 Syrian refugees who are making new homes in B.C.

The refugees from Syria are here either through government-assisted or privately sponsored refugee programs. Of the total 25,000 refugees allowed into Canada, 10,000 are privately sponsored; Ottawa is supporting the other 15,000. (The five-year-old conflict in Syria has displaced nearly 11 million people, according to the United Nations.) This past December, Hasan helped organize an event in Surrey, B.C. that raised more than $500,000 to support privately sponsored refugees, whose upkeep for a family of four is about $28,000 a year. Hasan also rented several warehouses to store the clothes, toys, and furniture donated by British Columbians to help the refugees.

This past December, Hasan helped organize an event in Surrey, B.C. that raised more than $500,000 to support privately sponsored refugees

The challenges facing the Syrians are myriad, says Hasan. Although most are well-educated, they will have to learn English and find jobs. Deeply traumatized by years of violence, they will also need psychological counselling in addition to food and shelter, says Hasan, who is working closely with Vancouver’s Immigrant Services Society of British Columbia. Culture shock will be an additional hurdle.

“Their values will be shaken, and that’s going to bring lots of stress to the parents and kids,” Hasan says. But the support of Canadians, especially those who speak Arabic, will help integration. “The first thing is to give them the confidence that they can make it here — make them feel positive about being in a new culture where they are safe.”

At times, life will seem bleak and lonely for the refugees as they try to fit into their new homeland, master a new language, and adapt to strange customs. But, as Hasan knows from his own childhood, life will get better, so long as there are generous-hearted people to lend a hand. ◊

C1_ENT interview


Name: Shawkat Hasam

Home base: Richmond, B.C.

Occupation: VP and director of social services

Organization: B.C. Muslim Association

Recent feat: Helping raise $500,000 to support privately sponsored refugees

In the works: Overseeing the settlement of 3,000 refugees in B.C.

First impressions of Canada: “It looked like paradise.” ♦