It’s a word that resonates in our hearts and minds, almost as powerfully as the word love. For Abdullatif Abdul Karim, it’s an English word he learned only recently. These days, he is using it to describe a two-storey building in the northeast neighbourhood of Bridgeland, tucked into a cul-de-sac a stone’s throw from a busy stretch of Memorial Drive.
“Here, we have found safety, peace, comfort, acceptance,” says Karim as he sits with his wife and four young children in the crafts room of the Margaret Chisholm Resettlement Centre. “It is the safest we have felt in a long time.”
Karim’s comments are no exaggeration. Indeed, the soft-spoken 31-year-old speaks with extreme understatement.
His escape from Aleppo, Syria, is one that has taken years, many tears and the kind of harrowing experiences only those who have fled war can truly understand. When and his wife, Ebitsam Alawa — their four children, ages three to seven, in tow — arrived at Calgary International Airport last month, they knew their death-defying journey was finally behind them.
“We were met with nice faces and kind hearts,” says Karim with the help of interpreter Rima Yacoub, a resettlement counsellor at the centre. His wife concurs: “It was an amazing feeling, from the moment we arrived, being welcomed here with love.”
Providing a temporary home for newcomers is one that the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society has provided for 35 years in the city. Over those decades, says Fariborz Birjandian, it has evolved to service so much more than the essential need for shelter.
“This centre has been here for 22 years, designed to help those who arrive relieve their stress, become familiar with life in Canada in a safe environment, get ready to begin their lives here,” says Birjandian, its CEO. “More than 15,000 Calgarians started their new lives right here in this building.”
Sitting in the centre’s cafeteria during the lunch hour, a steady stream of people of all ages line up for a hot meal, while the chatter of little ones fills the air. “More than 90 per cent of them have come from a very harsh situation,” says Birjandian, noting that 1,400 people arrived from Syria in the last year. “There are so many practical things we need to do, but we also work on helping them rebuild the self-esteem they lost as a refugee.”
Like Birjandian, Arlene Adamson devotes her days to helping those needing, first and foremost, shelter. But her clients also require help with a wide range of daily challenges that are unique to their stage in life.
“For those who have never had to worry about a roof over their heads, the concept of shelter is something we take for granted,” says Adamson, CEO of Silvera for Seniors, a charitable organization that has been helping seniors and their families in Calgary for over half a century. “For those not as fortunate, it can be a driving-in-your-face worry.”
Navigating the affordable housing system is even more challenging when faced with the impairments of advanced age, she notes. Many of her clients — the average age is 85, with a higher number in recent years of those 90 and older — experience everything from loss of vision and hearing to reduced mobility and memory loss. Combine those with a lack of computer literacy and social isolation, says Adamson, and you have a highly vulnerable community that can so easily fall through the cracks.
“This is an age group that can’t even function at a homeless shelter,” says Adamson, whose organization offers several programs and services along with helping low-income seniors find housing. “We’re dealing with a population vulnerable like no other.”
The people Heather Morley helps to find both temporary and permanent housing are much younger. Some, in fact, have barely spoken their first words. “So often, they are the invisible homeless,” says Morley, vice-president of programs and services at YWCA Calgary. “People are more willing to open their homes temporarily to a woman with young children, so you don’t see them show up in the traditional places that help those facing homelessness.”
The YWCA helped to house more than 1,200 women and their children last year, from emergency shelters to transitional housing. The supports, however, go far beyond a providing a roof and four walls.
“We are starting to learn much more about the unique ways in which homelessness affects women and children,” says Morley, whose organization is the longest serving in the city for women, helping them to break the cycle of family violence, poverty and homelessness. “It is about a bed and a safe roof over their heads, but it’s also about counselling and support. One won’t work without the other.”
Watching the city of his birth collapse in recent days, not knowing the fate of relatives and friends, has been nothing short of torturous for Abdullatif Abdul Karim and his 29-year-old wife. “It is breaking our hearts, making us ache,” he says as he wipes tears from his eyes.
No one needs to tell him he is one of the lucky ones. In the coming days, he and his family will settle into their first home in many years, in a city that despite a recent winter freeze, has already shown its warmth. “As a parent, all you want is a better future for your kids,” says Karim as his four little ones proudly hold up snowmen they made out of paper plates and crafts.
“We will be sad to leave this place, it has been home to us,” he says. “But we’re ready to start our new lives, filled with hope.”
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