Visiting Syrian Refugees in Israel: A Conversation with Emma Waverman

Last week, the Media Magnets visited a hospital in northern Israel, where they met Syrian refugee patients and the Israeli doctors who treat them. Though Israel and Syria are considered enemies, Israel has taken in Syrian refugees in need of medical attention who are unable to get help in their war-torn country. This visit especially hit home for Canadian writer, blogger, and author Emma Waverman, whose family sponsored a Syrian refugee family in Canada — and has applied to sponsor their extended family, as well. We spoke with Emma about her experiences sponsoring a Syrian refugee family and the importance of Israel’s actions.


Why did your family decide to sponsor a Syrian family?


A little more than two years ago, I heard a woman on the radio say that private citizens can sponsor Syrian refugee families through specific organizations. I thought, “I can do this. I’ll need a lot of help, but I can figure this out.” A week later, the photo of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian refugee, whose family had applied to come to Canada, but who had drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, was featured on the front page of every newspaper in Canada. This mobilized so many people, and my friend and I formed a group of 20 families from our neighborhood to sponsor a refugee family.


I’m one of thousands of people who became involved in these efforts and the experience was as good for me as it was for the family we sponsored. It’s better to give than to receive. And I still feel like it’s the most Jewish thing I’ve ever done.  


What did sponsoring a Syrian refugee family entail?


We needed to raise about $50,000 to support a Syrian refugee family for an entire year in order to pay for their rent and to give them a monthly budget for clothes, food, and whatever else they might need. We also needed to provide emotional and logistical support. We decided to sponsor a family with kids and we also chose to take on a family with a medical concern. Our sponsorship group included a doctor and the parent of a child who has special needs, both of whom could help us navigate medical issues. When we learned about a couple who spoke no English, had no education, and had two little boys, one of whom had a medical issue that was a main focus for the doctor in our group — we felt like it was bashert (meant to be). We knew that it was a difficult case and that they wouldn’t integrate quickly, but it was obvious to us that we needed to sponsor them.


With the help of a translator, we called the family, who was then located in Iran. We told them that we were a group of Canadians who were bringing them to Canada and that though they did not know us, we would be their extended family. Then, in February, we learned that the family would arrive in four days. We had a garage full of furniture. A Jewish family had donated four apartments to Syrian refugee families — one which went to our Syrian refugee family. We filled their refrigerator with familiar foods, including labneh, tabouli, and tehina — because food is love. We brought them to their new home, helped them fill out all of the necessary paperwork, and helped them register for free healthcare and English classes. We spent a lot of time with them over the next year, supporting them however we could.


How did the experience impact your family?


It was a great experience for my family. For my son’s Bar Mitzvah Tikkun Olam project, he organized a bake sale to raise money to send the family’s kids to a soccer program. My kids also babysat for the kids when we had to help their parents. I reminded my kids, “There were Jews who were turned away in boats from Europe. This family could’ve been us, and this is our time to help.” The Syrian family didn’t think anything of the fact that we’re Jewish. The father has said, “Everyone is the same on the inside, no matter what your religion is.” I even texted them from Jerusalem’s Machaneh Yehuda market and asked if they wanted za’atar. They said yes!


What was it like to meet Syrian refugees who were being treated in Israel’s Ziv hospital in the North that you visited as part of your Media Magnets Trip?


It was nice to know that they are getting good care and that the hospital doesn’t ask any questions about who they are and where they come from. I love the idea of helping people simply because they’re in need. That’s what the Israeli hospital is doing and they’re not doing it with any special fanfare. As the Israeli doctor who we met told us, they’re treating the refugees because it’s the right thing to do.


We were able to speak to the patients about their injuries and their lives. The patients we met were all young men. One had diabetes and one had an injury from a landmine. When we asked them how they felt that Israeli doctors were treating them, they said that they were grateful that they are taking care of them. They all wanted to go home to see their wives and families. They joked around and drank Coca Cola. It’s important to remember that people are just people and they can be hurt and healed. It’s good for Syrians to interact with Israelis and it’s good for Israelis to interact with Syrians and see that they’re each regular people who can extend a helping hand. That’s how peace starts. You never know how one good turn can make a difference.


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