It was in the friendly confines of a Mississauga hospital room that Younes Al Tamer and Feryal Al Shelbi welcomed their youngest son into the world one night in September of 2020.
Considering that just 12 months earlier, the family was struggling to survive in the wilderness of Lebanon after fleeing their home in Aleppo – one of the hardest hit cities of the Syrian Civil War – the birth of their son felt like a monumental step in a near-impossible journey.
But their arrival in Canada in September of 2019 by no means spelled the end of the family's challenges. The family was starting their lives from scratch in a foreign land where they didn't speak the language and they had no connection to the community.
And despite a heart-breaking goodbye to their extended family and homeland, the Al Tamer family had no idea what awaited them in the country they would soon call home.
Their relocation was made easier thanks to Together Project – a charitable initiative of MakeWay that pairs refugee households with 'Welcome Groups' made up of volunteers, with the goal of creating essential social networks to help newcomers settle in Canada.
Together Project is funded in part by the TD Ready Commitment, the Bank's global corporate citizenship platform, and many TD employees volunteer their time with Together Project.
A warm welcome from the 'Canadian smile'
The family arrived in Toronto in September of 2019 after an 11-hour trans-Atlantic flight. While an immigrant settlement agency took care of many of their initial needs – including finding the family a home in Mississauga and enrolling the children in school – the Al Tamer family enjoyed the local parks and gardens of their adoptive home where their children could safely play and make new friends.
"We were surprised that everyone in Canada was always smiling at us," said Al Tamer.
"The 'Canadian smile' we received from our friends and neighbours made us feel so welcome, comfortable and safe."
Through Together Project, the family was matched with a group of TD volunteers from a local branch, who started helping the family adjust to life in Canada.
"There's a real need for social support for newcomer families between getting initial help from settlement agencies, and being fully integrated into Canadian society, and Together Project volunteers are that bridge," Together Project Co-Director Andrew Lusztyk said.
Before the end of their first month on Canadian soil, The Al Tamer family were sharing traditional Syrian tea in their new living room with the group of seven TD volunteers led by Erik Tollis and Sarah Barbash – all working together to help build the family's new life.
Daily challenges complicated by COVID-19
But just as the family started to really get settled, COVID-19 arrived in Canada.
"When the pandemic hit, one of their children was experiencing medical issues and Feryal was pregnant with Justin, their 11th child – it was already hard for them to get around with so many kids, but now it was top priority to get the family independently mobile," Tollis said.
The TD volunteer team also helped bring together the family, representatives from the children's school, and a student caseworker address the children's challenges with remote learning and got them the language support and resources they needed for their education.
"It's so frustrating when you can't communicate – all the help we got with our finances, with English, with the kids' schooling, was not just practical, it was a huge emotional support as well," said Al Tamer.
With the language barrier making it extremely difficult for Al Tamer to do simple things like pay a hydro bill, the TD volunteer group, equipped with an Arabic-speaking member, stepped in quickly.
"We tackled their personal finances and bills first and brought Younes and Feryal to a TD branch to set up automatic bill payments. We also had Younes apply for a credit card, and we were delighted when his application received approval. Once he received his card, we helped him to activate it," said Tollis.
"One of the reasons we felt it was important for Younes to apply for a credit card is that it would help him establish a credit history in Canada, something that could one day help him access financial tools and products he might need for his family's future, such as a mortgage."
A symbiotic relationship
"Almost half of Together Project volunteers, and many of the TD volunteers we work with, have some form of newcomer experience, meaning they or their parents came to Canada as refugees or immigrants," explains Lusztyk.
"Not only do they bring deep empathy and understanding to their work, but many also become role models, especially for the youth, examples of what their future and path forward could look like."
But the benefits of volunteering with newcomers is not a one-way street. Playing an active role in community-building creates a symbiotic relationship: when communities are connected, everyone benefits.
"An unexpected silver lining of this experience is how it's helped my colleagues and me grow professionally," said Tollis. "The stories Younes shared with us are heart-wrenching, yet so important to hear because they have really helped me and our team to better understand what this family has gone through, and how we can best support them."
"We see a mosaic of cultures walk through the doors of our GTA branch every day. This volunteer project has helped us become more educated and less ignorant about experiences of new Canadians. It's also helped to deepen our understanding of the needs of our new Canadian customers and allowed us to further build our branch community, so that Younes and all our newcomers can feel welcome."
New Canadians with renewed hope
Today, despite the ongoing pandemic, the Al Tamer family have high hopes for their future in Canada.
"I am optimistic about a bright future for my children again," said Al Tamer.
"My TD friends made me see that anything is possible in Canada, and if it wasn’t for all the people who have helped us, it would have been impossible for us to bridge the language and knowledge gaps and integrate into Canadian society."
More than a year into their friendship, both the Al Tamer family and the TD volunteers look forward to the day they can all celebrate the birth of the son who was born in September last year, the family's 11th child, together in person.
The family named him Justin, in honour of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and the family's new home.
"It’s an honor to name our child after Trudeau," said Al Tamer, who added that the family hopes to one day reunite with extended family, who were displaced to other countries by the conflict in Syria.
"It’s our small gift of thanks to this country and everything that Canadians have done for us. Today, I consider all my children sons and daughters of Canada."
Since 2019, TD has supported The Together Project, a charitable initiative of MakeWay, through the Bank's global corporate citizenship platform, the TD Ready Commitment. Together Project has recently been approved for a new grant from the TD Ready Commitment, totalling $150,000 over the next three years, to help more newcomer families like the Al Tamer's build a new life and community in Canada.