Program matching refugees with Calgarians says demand for volunteers at all time high

Marsha Brodrick sets her hands gently on the shoulders of a young Yazidi girl who now calls Calgary home in a sunny backyard in the city’s southwest. It’s the type of touch usually reserved for a doting grandmother or the closest of family members.

That’s exactly what Brodrick has become to Sharaf Khudeeda’s family, who escaped Iraq and the terror of Islamic State militants in 2014. The family spent time at the Sharia Refugee Camp in the Kurdistan region of Iraq before arriving in Canada in 2017, where they are now well on the way to rebuilding new lives.

They are safe now, but it’s not been easy. Their stories are harrowing and their challenges starting a new life are many. 

The retired teacher, a volunteer with the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, stepped into the family of seven’s lives when they arrived here and is still helping them today, bridging the gap between two very different cultures, helping where she can. 

The family survived the persecution of Yazidis, a religious minority group, by the Islamic State. Women were brutalized and forced into sexual slavery and men were tortured and killed, including several of the family’s extended family members. Their faded pictures sit in frames around the Khudeeda home. One features 16 different faces, all men. 

Sitting on an old dining chair outside in the backyard as the birds sing and the trees sway gently in the breeze Sharaf Khudeeda says life is good now. 

“We are here, we are working, we don’t have a problem, life is better,” said Khudeeda.

They say a big part of the family’s success has been the help they’ve received from their volunteer, Brodrick. 

Basi Hussein holds photos of relatives that were killed in Iraq at the hands of the Islamic State. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

Volunteers play a very different role than settlement agencies and their counsellors. Volunteers make themselves available to field questions from how to deal with mail and bills to explaining how banking works and using computers. There are also questions relating to learning and speaking English, even helping kids get to their soccer games — just helping to make sense of day-to-day life in Calgary.

“It’s really important, especially the first year and second year. Marsha helped us with everything, even now. When we get mail we just look at it, we don’t understand,” said Khudeeda, who spoke Kurmanji when he arrived and had to learn English from scratch. “Marsha says do this, do that, it’s really helpful. I always say thank you so much to Marsha,” he said.

Khudeeda now has a construction job, a car and rents a house. His next goal is to buy their first home. His kids are busy with school, soccer and video games.

“I am proud to be Canadian. I’m happy I’m here,” he said.

Brodrick started volunteering soon after retirement. She says the journey it took her on was beyond what she ever expected. The family set themselves goals to success and Brodrick helped to guide and realize them.

“Every little increment makes you feel more at home,” she said.

“Sometimes it was helping in the kitchen, sometimes it was taking the mums shopping, showing them how to pay for things. They didn’t know what a quarter was, all the little things you don’t think of,” said Brodrick.

“They used to get on a bus and travel an hour each way just to ask someone a question but now they can just send me a picture to me on their phone and it saves them hours of travel.”

“Volunteering is for anybody that likes people,” said Brodrick. “Everybody has a different skill set. For me I had four sons, so I was good with the kids, also four boys. You can do whatever’s comfortable for you. You can just meet in a park on a weekend for an hour, it’s up to the volunteer to decide.”

Some volunteers move on once families are established, others like Brodrick find that they’ve made friends for life.

Agencies like the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society say they are in dire need of more volunteers willing to make the jump into the unknown and start their own unique journeys with newcomer families.

They currently have 1,300 new refugees waiting to start new lives here. A thousand of those are from Afghanistan, here as part of the federal government’s promise to offer a lifeline following the return of the Taliban in that country. They are numbers they say they’ve not seen in decades.

Sharaf Khudeeda holds up a Canadian flag at his home in Calgary. He arrived in Canada in 2017 and was twinned with a volunteer through the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society. He is now a Canadian citizen. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

“Volunteers are very special people. They are driven by passion and empathy and they do fabulous things to welcome those who have found themselves in really difficult situations facing big change,” said Beata Lutaba with the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society. 

“We are in great need for volunteers. There are so many refugees now — ten times more than what we’d usually get,” said Lutaba.

The refugees are coming from all over the world. Many who were accepted and processed previously are now arriving after being delayed by the pandemic. There are also large numbers of Afghan refugees and Ukrainian evacuees arriving in the city.

Not far from the Khudeeda home are some of those more recent arrivals, swapping their home in the chaos of Kabul for an old condo building on a sleepy street in south Calgary: three sisters that escaped the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan, arriving in Calgary in February following a five month stay in Macedonia where they were confined to a hotel for their entire stay.

“When we came to Canada we were free. We could go out, it was like heaven for us. We were not forced to wear a hijab any more and nobody was asking us about our beliefs, we could say whatever we wanted,” said Zohra Hussaini, who landed here with her sisters Kowsar and Sarah.

The three sisters lost their own mother eight years ago but say they’ve found a new one in the form of volunteer Anne-Marie Kemp.

“We didn’t have a mother and we asked for a foster mother, someone who could act like our mother. For a long time we didn’t have a person who could help with emotional support. When we met Anne-Marie we found her kind-hearted, caring and she was like a mother to us. We owe her a lot,” said Hussaini.

Kemp helped the sisters access food banks, familiarized them with the city, including which stores to shop at, and helped them revive much-loved hobbies that had become lost in the turmoil, including painting, providing them with all the materials. Kemp connected one of the sisters with a guitar, something she had to leave behind in Kabul.

“We didn’t know what to do, we were lost,” said Hussaini.

Anne-Marie Kemp (left) visits three Afghani sisters who arrived in Calgary in February 2022 after fleeing the Taliban. Sarah, Zohra and Kowsar Hussaini say Kemp is like a mother to them. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

The sisters are completing university degrees and hope to apply for masters degrees and eventually complete PhDs. They say being twinned with a former educator as a volunteer is the perfect match. They say having someone to talk to and answer their questions made their first few months so much easier.

“Now we have a mother, a house, freedom,” said Hussaini. 

Anne-Marie Kemp has volunteered with other families over the years, including Yazidi and Syrian families.

“It’s a very joyful opportunity to welcome new Canadians. Many of them, especially women, sometimes feel very alone and there’s so much we can do,” she said.

“It’s not really work, it’s a pleasure. It’s really educational. We have wonderful exchanges about cultural ideas, their culture,” said Kemp. 

“It’s been wonderful. We’ve quickly become family and friends for life,” she said. 

She says she’s found connection through food, art and crafts and games along with company and companionship. She’s introduced families to Canadian traditions, food and institutions, including Calgary’s public library system and local museums.

“With one Syrian family, we went to Heritage Park and we had a banquet of Syrian food on the steam boat and the children got to enjoy the rides and had ice cream for the first time,” said Kemp. 

Kemp says her job is to embrace, encourage and educate families on life in Alberta and Canada, including the long list of opportunities that the country offers all Canadians.

She says volunteering with newcomers has been a life-affirming experience and she’s gained as much as she’s given.

“I’m learning more all the time,” said Kemp.

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