Welcoming the stranger

Friendships develop as two Nova Scotian churches sponsor a Somali family.

Six years ago, the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. A photo of him, belly down in the sand, went viral around the world. Perhaps more than any other factor, this photo shocked the western world into action.

But refugees have always been with us. During the 1970s, the end of the Vietnamese war resulted in the Canadian government establishing the BVOR (Blended Visa Office-Referred) program to help private sponsors bring in families from that war-torn country. This program gives refugees six months of government support alongside six months of private sponsorship support. Canada now has the distinction of taking in more refugees than any other country in the world. Last year, more than 30,000 refugees were brought here to begin a new life.

Six years ago, that sad little body on a foreign shore spurred a huge wave of refugee sponsorships. Churches, service clubs and community groups got organized towards this goal. They gathered funds, furniture and other necessities of life, rented housing, and dealt with the bureaucracy involved.

I was part of the Centreville-Aldershot group in Nova Scotia, when two small churches stepped out in faith and decided to sponsor a family together. We worked through the regional Baptist organization, headquartered in Moncton. In less than one year, the Abdi family was here – a father and mother with six children. They had been in a camp called Kakuma in Kenya since Somalia’s civil war began.

Transitions & friendships

We found a Somali student at Acadia University who proved really useful as interpreter. In 2018, at his pleading, we agreed to sponsor his grandmother, Maryan; she had been languishing in the Dadaab camp, which is also in Kenya. He told us that she was mostly blind and would need help, so we sponsored her along with her daughter Nimo’s family. Nimo and her husband, Ibrahim, came to Kentville, Nova Scotia with three little sons three years ago. They have since had two Canadian-born daughters.

Left: Friends Nimo & Anne. Right: Maryam and her grandchild.

Many other churches have taken similar action, sponsoring refugees and then supplying physical and emotional support after they arrive. Some refugee families have required help after the first year was up, whether with transportation to grocery stores and medical appointments, or with English mail the newcomers couldn’t read. Other families managed to become self-sufficient in less than one year. Either way, many sponsors have formed long-term friendships with the newcomers.

Maryan’s family was the self-sufficient kind. Ibrahim went online and found himself work only six weeks after arrival. He got a Nova Scotia driver’s license and bought himself a vehicle within months. The Canadian Child Benefit kicked in after seven or eight months, and they’ve not needed financial support since. The boys are in school and growing up as young Canadians. Their little sisters will follow in their footsteps before long.

Unable to ‘shelter in place’

Meanwhile, COVID-19 has struck the world. There’s no doubt that the pandemic has hit us all hard, even if we’re not actually sick. Life feels more fragile, and we have become more focused on our own problems. Not being able to see family and friends at times, having to wear masks even in church, trying to “stay the blazes home!” as Nova Scotia’s former premier urged in 2020 – life is just harder than it used to be.

It’s easy to forget that we’re still among the most blessed people on earth. I doubt too many Christian Courier readers are too poor to eat breakfast in the morning, and we don’t have to stand in line for clean drinking water. Our houses are comfortable and warm and sometimes luxurious. We have access to good health care, education and work opportunities.

Here’s a few statistics to help us look beyond ourselves:

  • According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, an unprecedented 82.4 million people around the world have been forced to flee their home.
  • Among them are 26.4 million refugees.
  • Around 42 percent of these are under the age of 18.

Numbers like these don’t tell the human toll on those who have had to flee war, violence, hunger and natural disasters. Those 26.4 million refugees include Maryan’s other daughter, Fosiyo, still in Dadaab camp with her husband and seven children. Maryan, whose only son was killed in Somalia’s violence, longs to have Fosiyo and family join her in Kentville.

Conditions in the Dadaab camp are almost impossible to imagine. The Kenyan government is again threatening to close down Dadaab. An earlier effort was blocked by Kenya’s Supreme Court, but the situation remains tenuous. Should the camp’s residents be forced out, they have no land, no home, no work, no family clan to return to.

An effort is underway to bring Fosiyo and family to Kentville. Many other churches across the country, along with some community groups, continue to welcome the stranger, shelter the homeless, and feed the hungry. If anyone doubts how much they can do for people of a different culture, religion and sometimes colour, consider the fate of Maryan Iye Mohammed. She arrived in Canada badly traumatized, in pain and virtually blind. Thanks to our good medical care she can now see her grandchildren. The constant pain is gone. Best of all, the peace and security of a real house in a small town have made her finally feel safe again.


  • Anne van Arragon

    Anne lives on a farm in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley. She is much involved with former Somali refugees now settled in Kentville.

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