Analyzing ceramics (photo by Rasha Elendari)
  • Rasha Elendari was reunited with family from Syria with the support of both Muslims and Jews
  • Inspired by love, she tries to dispel the hate and fear some people have about refugees

From Syria With Love

By Peter Boisseau
The Freelance Bureau

Reunited with her family after they fled from Syria, and grateful for the welcome they’ve received in the city she considers her new home, Rasha Elendari is feeling inspired by love, even as she tries to dispel hate and fear.

A flood of media coverage about Elendari and her family, who were reunited after being separated for two years through the collaboration of Toronto-area Muslims and Jews, generated hundreds of messages of support and well wishes, but also a few filled with anger and hostility.

Elendari says she reads the negative comments – even the nastiest ones – without taking it personally.

“I understand why these people are feeling this way, and I don’t blame them,” says Elendari, a doctoral student of Middle Eastern archaeology at the University of Toronto, who was separated from her family for two years before the reunion.

“They see some psychopath do something, and it’s all over the news. They have a right to be scared. We shouldn’t ignore them and call them racists. We should listen and educate them.”

Media power

Elendari is embracing the publicity around her family’s story even though she did not seek it out. In her eyes, the same media that sometimes fans the flames of hatred also has a tremendous power to build bridges.

“The media here are doing a great thing by introducing the Syrian newcomers to Canadians. It’s for a good cause, and it shows beautiful things like the collaboration between the mosque and the synagogue.”

A cultural exchange group Elendari runs at the department of Near & Middle Eastern civilizations and Victoria College called the Cultural Exchange and Support Initiative, or NMC-CESI has also gained media coverage, generating emails from Americans despairing about their president's immigration policies, as well as offers of help from all over Toronto and Canada.

It’s just one of the bridge-building activities Elendari is juggling as she works to complete her studies, spread awareness about Syrians, and now help her family integrate into Canadian society and the city she loves for its diversity.

A Fulbright scholar, Eledari moved to Toronto in 2012 after completing her master’s degree in the United States, and was immediately struck by the differences between Canada and America.

“In the U.S., people need to follow a certain norm in order to feel included and accepted,” she says.

“But here, you see all these ethnic neighbourhoods, and yet the people are still so Canadian.”

Almost went home

Elendari almost didn’t get to experiece her new Canadian home.

She wanted to go back to Syria when the war broke out, but her family convinced her to stay. She’s taken on the responsibility of helping them since their arrival, a reunion that was filmed by CBC’s The National.

Her sisters and brothers-in-law are already starting to practise their own professions, including filmmaking and pharmacology. Her parents, who were well-known teachers and humanitarian aid workers in Syria, are eager to start learning English.

“They are educated and accomplished people, but they’ve come to a new country, and now they feel ignorant. It will take them a little longer, but they are hard-working and they want to be active,” she says, noting her father is always peppering her with questions about nuances of English grammar.

In the meantime, Elendari continues her studies on fourth-millennium BC Mesopotamia, even as some of the most precious sites are being destroyed by the region’s fighting.

She can relate to what some Canadians may be feeling about the influx of newcomers from the Middle East.

Syrians know how Canadians feel

A million Iraqis poured into Syria fleeing the war the U.S. and its allies began in their country in 2003, and those refugees met with some resentment for the pressure they put on an already poor country.

“Many Syrians were annoyed, but nobody said to close the door. Now, when people feel the same way here, we know where it comes from,” Elendari says.

“I am hoping those people will try to talk to Syrians and decide for themselves if they really are terrorists, or just normal people who are running away from terror.”

©2017 Peter Boisseau

Rasha Elendari’s gracious response to hatred is remarkable. So is the simple but powerful idea of introducing newcomers to Canadians through grassroots social groups and networks. Our population is growing rapidly, thanks in large part to newcomers from other parts of the world (see link below). Generation by generation, we’ll be better off because of these new Canadians. It makes sense to start getting to know each other, eh? - Ed

Please contact us if you want publicity and/or earned media. We're here to help. For blog on the power of storytelling, please go here. -- Ed

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Canada' s prosperity relies on open borders -- National Post

Canada's secret for welcoming immigrants -- The Atlantic

Related links:

U of T Arts and Sciences
Inspired by love, dispelling hate and fear

U of T News
Student reunited with family from Syria

CBC News 
Syrian family has been reunited thanks to a unique partnership between a mosque and a synagogue

The Times of Israel 
Canadian synagogue, mosque join forces to help Syrian refugee family

The Globe and Mail 
Syrian family to reunite in Toronto, thanks to unlikely partnership