Dateline, Canada’s Open House


MOHAMAD, REFUGEE (Translation):  Guantanamo Bay is a prison on an island. Same here. We stay and play in this space. We can’t go anywhere because… it’s a village. It has nothing.

There's a quiet comfort Mohamad Rafia finds with an evening coffee and cigarettes, a welcome ritual in a strange land.

MOHAMAD RAFIA (Translation):  You feel like a stranger, there’s no one. There’s no mingling, no mingling with the neighbours.

Mohamad and his family fled Syria and have been living in Chipman for six months.

SAMIE: That's our jacket.

DUHA:  One for everyone.

The Canadian government has opened its borders to over 30,000 Syrian refugees. Almost half have been privately sponsored by ordinary Canadians desperate to help.

DUHA:  Wow!

Garage sales, church concert and donations are all part of the effort to get Syrians into hundreds of communities across the country.

DAWN BURKE, SPONSOR:  Good morning! Hello! How’s Duha?

The friendly visitor at the door is Dawn Burke, one of the Raffias's sponsors.

DAWN BURKE:  Hi Mohamad, how are you?

For six months, she's been voluntarily helping them to settle in.

DAWN BURKE:  Are you good?

For one year, the sponsorship group will support the Raffias financially.

DAWN BURKE:  One of our responsibilities is to make sure that you are living within your means and that you can pay your bills.

But their income is fixed and today, there's an uncomfortable chat about money.

MOHAMAD RAFIA (Translation):  The papers I received in Jordan say…

Communicating with Google translate makes things even harder.  

MOHAMAD RAFIA (Translation):  … that I will get a house rent free for a year.

Everyone's getting a bit frustrated.

MOHAMAD RAFIA (Translation):  The state pays for rent for a year.

DAWN BURKE:  I think I know what he's saying.

We only realised how much was being lost in translation by Google when he had our subtitles done by an Arabic translator.

DAWN BURKE:  The money that we give you is to pay your bills.

MOHAMAD RAFIA (Translation):  Why all these expenses? I ask myself this question. The problem is, when there is no interpreter, Google doesn’t help me understand correctly. I want to understand why I must pay when I didn’t before.

And without understanding, trust doesn't come easily.

MOHAMAD RAFIA:  Crazy, crazy, crazy.

DAWN BURKE:  Trust has been an issue from Day 1. How can I get across to Mohamad that we don't have a pot of gold that we're keeping from him, and that every other refugee that comes here are paying their bills?

REPORTER:  Do you feel underqualified for the challenges that have come with sponsoring this family?

DAWN BURKE:  Somewhat. I think somewhat. I think that a good heart, a well-meant intention is great, but there are complex issues that need to be dealt with.

Chipman is strung out along one main street, with much of the traffic going to and from the local sawmill. Without transport, the family is mostly marooned at home and without English, it will be difficult for Mohamad to find work.

SAMIE:  Here is our bedroom, we want to show you. I like the dinosaurs!

His four kids have made themselves at home here.

REPORTER: You're happy here?

DUHA:  Yes. I'm very happy here. I like the people here.

SAMIE:  They are very nice. Yes.

But for their parents it's much more of a struggle. The sponsors pay for English lessons, but they're not going well.

JULIE SLATER, SPONSOR:  We. My mom and my dad, this is two people. So would this be I, he, she, it, we, they or you? Which one?

MOHAMAD RAFIA:  You are. We are.

JULIE SLATER:  Nup. We're still struggling with things like personal pronouns. It's something that we have worked on and we have worked on most of the things that we do before at some point and I find that we have to do them again, because they get forgotten.

Their teacher also struggles with the fact that when it's time for Mohamad's wife Raghda to have a go...

JULIE SLATER:  Hello, how are you?

He offers over her...


And answers the questions for her.

MOHAMAD RAFIA:  Hi. I'm good.

RAGHDA ALDNDAL:  Hi, I am good. I’ll get you back for this!

REPORTER:  Raghda, you don't do your lessons with Mohamad?

RAGHDA ALDNDAL (Translation):  We don’t get along, to be frank.

It's actually been years since Mohamad and Raghda have spent this much time together. Mohamad was often apart from Raghda, away for work in Turkey. Being uprooted has affected them in ways the sponsors could never have expected. Mohamad is isolated, worried about finding work, and afraid he's changing.

MOHAMAD RAFIA (Translation):   It affected my marriage, because… we are stuck together every day. Raghda might want to mop. I’ll say “Its not the right time, leave it.” I feel angry sometimes. I’m staying at home, doing nothing - all day at home with no one to talk to, only the children.

RAGHDA ALDNDAL (Translation):  We are not used to him being at home all the time.  You know about Arabs and the idea of men staying at home.  Regardless of how good he might be, women don’t like it.

It's a double whammy for Mohamad, not only is he stuck at home, but Raghda, who traditionally in Syria would be stuck at home... is enjoying more of a social life than he is.

BETTY MCPHEE, QUILTER:  It has a zipper? Yes, zipper. Yes. Zipper. Good. Learning new words. Very good!

RAGHDA ALDNDAL:  Very good. Very good!

BETTY MCPHEE: Aah, I love it! A hug and a smile, everybody understands that. She's just special. Yeah she livens up our group. She doesn't talk to us very much, but we talk to her and laugh and share our lunch. It's great having her.

RAGHDA ALDNDAL (Translation): The women are really good.  Their treatment, their manner, their words.  They are good.  It is true that they are older than me, but I feel relaxed when I am with them.  Honestly.  I am not saying this as a compliment or because they are around.

A barbecue at Dawn's house is a welcome break for the family.


A chance to escape the rut they're in at home and mingle with their sponsors.

DAWN BURKE:  How much of the lamb that I bought you from Costco have you already used?


WOMAN:  Oh that's the end of it?

MOHAMAD RAFIA:  One, two, finished.

DAWN BURKE:  So yes, the next lamb is on Dawn's account.

Dawn's good humoured and big-hearted but sponsorship has taken its toll.

DAWN BURKE:  Where does your sister live?

She worried about Mohamad and Raghda all the time and she's frustrated that she couldn't seem to meet their needs.

DAWN BURKE:  At times, it's very hard, even though I explain that I work full time and that I is have a family of six children myself, and that I live half an hour away from them, they still want me there.

Raghda, have you been able to talk to Mohamad about your relationship? Have you been able to talk to Mohamad?

Dawn knows there's been some tension recently between Raghda and Mohamad and if something's wrong then she wants to fix it.

DAWN BURKE:  Is it still that you're both together all of the time and you're not used to that?

Using Google Translate for financial counselling is tough. Marriage counselling proves even harder.

RAGHDA ALDNDAL (Translation): We don’t talk much, I keep to myself and he keeps to himself.

Dawn knows they were used to living apart when Mohamad was away for work and realises this might be the answer.

DAWN BURKE:  So do you think it will work better if Mohamad works in another town?

They start talking about a city about two hours from Chipman. With more job opportunities for Mohamad, it would give his wife a break.

WOMAN:  Once you're done, move away.

DAWN BURKE:  Here Mohamad, why don't you sit down over here?

Dawn doesn't shy away from much.

DAWN BURKE:  One of the things that Raghda has suggested is that we maybe find a job, say, in Fredericton for Mohamad.

MOHAMAD RAFIA:  Yes, good.

DAWN BURKE:  OK. I know it's a hard thing for me to bring up and I'm sorry, I feel tension.

Conversations like these weren't what Dawn had in mind when she signed up to sponsor a Syrian family.

DAWN BURKE:  OK, good. And Dawn and Mohamad good?

MOHAMAD RAFIA:  Good, good.

DAWN BURKE:  OK. Alright. Good. Good. Alright, yeah. Yep. OK.

She's often uncomfortable about the role she's had to take on. How should she juggle helping the family with respect for its privacy?

DAWN BURKE:  I don't think it's natural that I'm suddenly privy to all of the intricate workings of a family. I grapple with knowing information that I don't want to know.

This is where Dawn comes to share the burden of all that information.

DAWN BURKE:  I'm just going to check my phone.

The regular committee meeting for the Raffias's sponsors.

DAWN BURKE:  We know that they're very bored. They're very lonely and it might be that finding a job for Mohamad in Chipman would be enough. That would be ideal.

The sponsors struggle to balance helping the family adjust to life here and making sure they become independent.

DAWN BURKE:  They could start paying all of their bills today and have enough money left over at the end of the day.

They' starting to ask themselves: are they being too kind?

BONNA ROBINSON, SPONSOR: If I take Raghda and we go shopping, I pay. That's just the way it goes.

SPONSOR:  That's just the way she is.

BONNA ROBINSON:  I know, it's my fault, I don't know, that's me. I'm not helping them. I understand that.

DAWN BURKE:  I'm gonna rap her fingers because it really isn't helping them to understand a budget and...

BONNA ROBINSON: That may need to be responsible.

They wonder whether the lack of progress in English also comes down to a lack of boundaries.

BETTY-JEAN FRIEDMAN, SPONSOR: I think what's happening is we're doing an awful lot of accommodating but we're also footing the bill, and we would like to see some level of results for them that or more productive use of time. I'm hearing you say that time is not productive. Therefore, I think that we have the ability to hold them accountable.

DAWN BURKE:  We've committed to do this for a year, recognising that at the end of the year, I don't think it ends. You know, the commitment doesn't end at the end of a year. You know, suddenly I don't take calls from Raghda or Mohamad if they have a question. No! I'm going to be there to help them.

The family's still got six months left but Mohamad and Raghda are already thinking of giving up on Chipman.

SAMIE: Dad is thinking he want to go to Fredericton to live. Dad don’t want Chipman.

RAGHDA ALDNDAL (Translation):  There is no work here.  No jobs.  No people.  No humans. I want to mingle with the people I know.  The Arabs.

MOHAMAD RAFIA (Translation):  My brain has actually become dysfunctional.  Should I go to Fredericton?  Should I go back to Turkey, to Jordan?  Where can I go? I don’t know. 

Shelburne's a picturesque fishing town with a rich colonial history, about five hours' drive from Chipman.


Private sponsorship has also brought the Hendawis to Canada. They're proof that sometimes it can go smoothly.

WADAH HENDAWI: Stretch your arms and do this, under the water. Yes, like that – arms and legs. Good.

SANDRA WALSH, SPONSOR:  A year ago, imagine this happening. It’s beyond – it’s beyond imagining.

Thousands of Syrians are thriving in small towns like this. They may not be Arabic grocery stores or language schools, but this close-knit community has other things to offer.

SANDRA’S HUSBAND:  Did you drive yesterday?


SANDRA’S HUSBAND:  How did you go?


This man is fitting in well here, partly because unlike Mohamad and Chipman, he's got male friends.

BILL MURPHY: Wadah, what we'll do here, you'll see the fishing.

Bill Murphy isn't part of the sponsorship group in Shelburne.

BILL MURPHY: This fish is a very expensive fish. You and I cannot afford this fish.

But he's taken it upon himself to befriend and mentor Wadah.

BILL MURPHY: The people who work the hardest or the most work get the best pay. Get the best money. Yeah, yeah.

WADAH HENDAWI: No work me.

BILL MURPHY: Well, Wadah, if you have good English, you understand.

WADAH HENDAWI:  Me, very good English.

BILL MURPHY: It's getting better. Your English is getting better, Wadah, I know. I know.

SANDRA WALSH:  Bill has become almost his father, I think a lot of times he can speak to the concerns that Wadah has that as well intentioned sometimes as a group of women are, we just see the world differently.

BILL MURPHY: I gotta introduce you to these guys 'cause they want to meet people here.

FISHERMAN:  That’s the backbone, that’s the bone all the way through it – it’s got bones that way and this way.

SAED: Yes.

Wadah would much rather be here than stuck at home drinking coffee and feeling sorry for himself.

WADAH HENDAWI (Translation):  I’m a skinner, it’s my ancestors’ job.

SAED:  Of course, very convincing.

Thanks to Will Bill, he's got opportunities here that Mohamad doesn't have in Chipman.

FISHERMAN:  Yeah, that's good, that's good.

They say it takes a village to raise a child.

FISHERMAN: Take care.

Shelburne proves that you need a village to get a refugee family on its feet.

SANDRA WALSH:  Are we ready? Gonna sit right here?

REPORTER:  No wonder you guys like to come and see the family!

REV. JOANNE MCFADDEN, SPONSOR: This is true! This is completely and utterly two-way. So yes, we're welcoming them into our community but they're welcoming us into their family. And that's been amazing. Most people see it as a job.

BILL MURPHY: Ladies' man. Yeah!

KATIE WALSH: I can tell Raghda feels bad when I do this. She would much prefer that she does it. But my mom insists that I do.

There is no shortage of trust here between the Hendawis and their sponsors. Cultural differences are tackled with teasing, not angst.

REPORTER:  Mohamad?


REPORTER: I think you're needed to help with the dishes.


REPORTER: You don't do dishes?

MOHAMAD: I don't know how I can do that. I'm not girl, OK!

REPORTER: Excuse me?

MOHAMAD: I'm not girl.

SANDRA WALSH:  After women did all of this, men do that. If men do this, women do that.

MOHAMAD: Really? So help everybody? Yeah, that's good. I like that.

SANDRA WALSH:  It's a rule, it’s Canada. That's what we do!

MOHAMAD: OK, OK, I’m going now.

SANDRA WALSH:  See, you say Canada?

So far, Australia's only resettled a tiny fraction of the Syrians it promised to accept late last year. The Canadian government extended its program because of overwhelming demand from would-be sponsors. Only Canada has allowed its citizens to do what so many others wish they could.

REPORTER: Do you know much about Australia's refugee policies?

SANDRA WALSH:  I know they're not very good! The Americans have essentially sealed their borders to just about anybody, but Syrians in particular, and it's just 'cause of fear.

MOHAMAD: Boys and girl.

SANDRA WALSH:  OK, they don't speak English. You get around it. And they don't have jobs. We're getting around it. People of goodwill on both sides, you can make it work.  

Amos Roberts

Story Producer
Joel Tozer

Amos Roberts

associate producer
Ana-Maria Quinn

Philippa Hutchison

Story Editor
Ryan Walsh

Nayyaf Alotaibi
Dalia Matar