Lambton and Area Ecumenical Refugee Committee’s (LAERC's) Canada Day party 2023, was a wonderful time for all − Buddhists, Muslims and Christians. This was the first time our committee and newcomers were able to get together since the Covid pandemic.
This annual gathering started in 2006, with the committee of eight, holding their monthly July meeting in the backyard of the Chair, Wilma and her husband, Del Stewart, along with a newcomer, mother of the first family that LAERC had sponsored, in February that year.
Nelcy shared her story, of being kidnapped by the paramilitary and her harrowing escape from being murdered and how grateful she was to LAERC for sponsoring her and her family and how thankful she was to have her three boys and herself, safe in Canada. She now owns and operates a very successful Mexican style restaurant, with great food, salsa dancing nights and it is a busy, popular place in Leamington.
Each year, the numbers at our Canada Day celebration vary, with between fifty and ninety gathering, but we never know ahead of time. Some years, many of the parents may have to work at their greenhouse jobs, so arrive later. Only once has it rained, but we moved everyone inside and still enjoyed the food and fellowship, and we all cleaned up together.
Our committee members, fourteen at present, from the Anglican, Presbyterian, United, Roman Catholic, Mennonite, & Lutheran churches and the wider community, work together to raise funds to sponsor one family a year. We financially fully support them for one year, and assist them in settling into their new community - helping them complete needed paper work, putting them in touch with government settlement services, registering for schools, assisting them to access medical and dental services as needed, providing rides to appointments, signing kids up for local sports teams, etc. So far, we have sponsored 22 family units, that's 99 people, from infants to grandparents, plus 24 babies that have been born since they arrived: fifteen of these family groups through the Anglican Church, seven through the Presbyterian Church.
We keep in touch with the families after their sponsorship is ended and gather with them to celebrate birthdays, graduations, arrival anniversaries and other special occasions. Canada Day is one of those community building gatherings. The kids love the time in the pool while their parents visit and enjoy relaxing together. Hotdogs are BBQ'ed, including halal, and most people bring a dish to share − many from their culture and a taste delight for all.
Many of the children recognize other kids from their school and enjoy playing together with their families there too.
For the committee, it is very rewarding and heart-warming to see how the little ones have grown and changed, hear about successes in school, new jobs, new homes and so on, and to know that the little we do, really does make a difference in the lives of these refugees and their future generations.
The families seemed so happy to relax in a safe place, with people they can trust, and to be together. Many of the children recognized each other from school. To have fun in a social setting, with their families there, strengthened their relationships and gave them a stronger feeling of belonging and more confidence.
For some, it was maybe a time when, for a few hours, they didn't think of the disasters, and war, and sickness, and loss and sadness, and the worry for relatives and friends still living under those conditions, and maybe a little more hope for a better future crept into their minds.
Hospitality to all! A Summer Feast!
Text and photo: Wilma Lamb Stewart, LAWERC chairperson. Wilma has worked with the diocesan Refugee Committee for over a decade.