Rob Perry recently sat down with our board chair, Dr Norman Musewe. Listen in on their conversation.
IAFR Canada’s board chair Norman Musewe was born in Harare, Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia). After medical school in Zimbabwe, he moved to England due to the war and trained in Pediatrics, before finally settling in Canada. In 1984 he was trained as a Pediatric Cardiologist at Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto, where he remains to this day.
When describing his spiritual journey, Norman tells of years of internal turmoil prior to 1992 when he began to follow Jesus. It is this faith in Christ which defines his life, choices, and character to this day.
Africa in My Heart
Another defining characteristic in Norman’s life is his passion for Africa. Norman visits Zimbabwe and many other countries in Africa regularly. When asked where this passion for Africa comes from, he says,
“It is not just because I was born there, but because Africa has been born in my heart! There is something which is difficult to explain about the beauty and vibrancy of Africa and its people. I identify with the poorest of the poor in Africa because I know what hunger and disease feels like.”
He continues: “As a Cardiologist I go to different parts of Africa to conduct clinics and facilitate shipments of medical supplies from Health Partners International Canada.* I look forward to being more involved in the welfare of the displaced in Africa.”
Mission Powered by Faith
Norman holds his credentials and experience with humility. When asked how he prioritizes all his various involvements, he says,
“There is a hierarchy…
Norman’s prayer for IAFR Canada
“My prayer for IAFR is that we will connect with more and more congregations in Canada to foster outreach to the refugees that are ‘lucky’ enough to get here. But that in the process, I pray that we expend more resources and energy in reaching out to those who cannot get here, in the many refugee camps, because that is where I think the real work is - bringing Christ and hope and new life to those trapped in these camps. I also hope we will recruit more people to our staff and board who have themselves experienced displacement.”
*Health Partners International Canada (HPIC) works to supply medicine where most needed around the world. IAFR Canada, along with IAFR USA and our partners on the ground, is working with HPIC to provide Humanitarian Medical Kits of essential medicines. Norman’s relationship with HPIC helped open doors for us to begin doing so.
Written by Danielle Steenwyk-Rowaan, Open Homes Hamilton Team Leader
A heavily pregnant mother , looking for a safe place to bring her baby into the world.
A volatile world marked by oppression, refugee crises, and uncertainty.
A refugee journey into an unknown and culturally different land to protect the life of her child. A life marked by prayer and dependence on God and the hospitality of strangers.
No, I'm not talking about the story of Jesus' arrival, though I very well could be.
I'm talking about a recently arrived Guest of Open Homes Hamilton (a program of IAFR Canada), who arrived in her host home in early November, 8 months pregnant.
She was worried for her child, of course. Travelling at 8 months pregnant is not easy, whether by plane, as in Carolina’s voyage, or on foot (likely the situation of Mary the mother of Jesus).
Flying at 8 months and going through a stressful interview after declaring refugee status at the airport had caused her amniotic fluid to leak. She was rushed to the hospital and given a date for an ultrasound--but instead of allowing her to attend her ultrasound, immigration officials put her in a 2 week COVID quarantine. She was alone, scared, and anxious about her partner’s safety.
As she sat in that lonely hotel room, praying and worrying about her baby, Carolina had called several refugee shelters to find space. But as the borders reopen to international travellers, the refugee houses are beginning to fill up.
Thankfully she is now safely settled into an Open Homes host home with her partner and is waiting to give birth. Though she is far from her family, and carries the trauma of the refugee journey and the experiences that pushed them to flee, she has a safe place to bring her child into the world and a Kinship Circle of volunteers to support her.
In Carolina’s native Spanish, “dar a luz” is the verb for giving birth. Translated literally, it means “to give to the light.”
Mary too was about to "dar a luz"...to the Light of the world. (John 1) And Mary too, found a safe place to give birth through the hospitality of strangers.
This Christmas, may the gritty reality of that first Christmas resound for you anew.
By Colleen Howat, a member of The Peoples Church in Toronto, and one of the leaders of Friendship Class.
It was a sunny, crisp fall day in October.
Perfect for our walk.
One that we’ve been talking about for a few weeks in Friendship Class (a special place for differently-abled adults to worship God together).
Pointing out these countries on a large globe helped us to see how far some people have had to come in order to find peace and safety. Many had to leave their homes and families and friends and jobs due to war, persecution and more.
Our friends were deeply impacted to learn of these people’s struggles; one woman couldn’t wait to ask God for special protection and food for the children. And then when our friends in class heard that we could help them out by walking and raising money too, that’s what we did! We called family, neighbours and friends to ask for their support. And they did so generously!!
The Walk for Refuge day was here! Two of our friends came on Wheeltrans. One who uses a walker arrived very early and another was picked up late, so ambled up the hill to catch up with us. Two young men from our class came with their moms. Another young person walked with her sister. All of us graciously walking together, supporting one another’s different capabilities for our adventure.
Once we all gathered, we talked more about why we were doing this… to give hope and peace and a welcoming to a new home for those who had given up everything. Then up Bayview Avenue from Tyndale College to The Peoples House we walked, pausing along the way to view pictures of children in Uganda and families in Malawi. Each time we stopped, we prayed for their safety and provision.
It was beautiful to see and hear the concern our friends had for the people we had been discussing. Perhaps they have a keen sense of the need to belong, how it feels to be left out and misunderstood themselves and their hearts longed to reach out.
Once we arrived at The Peoples House, we were greeted by smiling residents and helpful volunteers. We sang “Never Give Up” (how appropriate!) and thanked God together. We all enjoyed lots of hot dogs and some delicious homemade almond squares!
Our friends said they had so much fun walking and meeting the people who had travelled so far. It was a blessing to see and hear people we’d just met, getting to know one another better over a meal. When it got a little chillier, some of us gathered inside around a large table and continued to share and meet more refugees who live in The Peoples House.
We are so grateful to have been able to join up and connect like this. It felt kind of like family. And families share and care for one another, just like we did!
Written by Aaron White, 24-7 Prayer Canada and part of the IAFR Canada team.
“Unless you have lived there, it is impossible to imagine.”
These are the words of Sayed Towfiq, a 27 year old Afghani man who came as a refugee to Canada nearly three years ago.
As he describes his life’s journey to me, it almost is impossible to imagine. His father, a doctor, had to flee Afghanistan with his family in 1999 because the Taliban had taken control of the country. Sayed’s family are Shia Muslim, a targeted minority under Taliban rule. They had endured in their home country for three years, but eventually his father was caught and jailed for a year. When he was released he was told that if they did not leave, his family would be killed. And if they ever came back, they would be killed.
So they fled, first to Pakistan, then to Iran, where Sayed and his family lived for the next seventeen years. In Iran they could speak the language and practice their faith in peace. But, says Sayed, “Iran is not good with immigrants.” Immigrants cannot own property, cannot even purchase a phonecard, and definitely cannot get permanent residency. Every year his father had to renew his temporary residence card and his right to work as a doctor. His father’s essential work meant that the family would also be allowed to stay in the country.
That changed when Sayed turned 22. At that age Iran determines that the son can no longer be covered by the father’s temporary residence permit, and would not issue Sayed with one either. They told him he must go back to Afghanistan, which he knew would end with his death.
So in 2018 Sayed began a long and dangerous journey through Turkey, Greece, Italy, France, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Iceland. Each border crossing was a risk, but less of a risk than returning to a country in the chaos of war. The journey took him a full year, until he was finally able to board a flight to Vancouver, Canada in 2019. He spent the first two weeks in immigration detention, until his family were able to send through his documentation. Few if any countries will offer a travel visa to someone with an Afghanistan passport, but having arrived in Canada, he was able to make his claim as a refugee.
Sayed spoke no English when he arrived, but is now able to converse and to express his great desires. For himself, he seeks to be educated, to learn English better, and to carry on his work as a carpenter. He says that the situation in Canada is so much better for refugees and immigrants than anywhere else he has been, and he is incredibly thankful. He now awaits his permanent residence card.
But his desires, hopes and dreams are not primarily for himself.
His family is still in Iran, and two months ago tragedy struck. HIs father, the doctor who had been caring for Covid-19 patients in Iran, himself contracted Covid-19 and died. This is devastating to the family, but also carries another deadly consequence: the covering Sayed’s mother and two sisters had received from their father was removed upon his death. They have been given six months to leave Iran and return to Afghanistan.
As Sayed tells me this, the pain and fear are clearly written upon his face. “Return to Afghanistan, totally controlled by the Taliban? No, this is impossible.”
Sayed explains the danger. In the first place, their family was told they would be killed if they returned. But even if this were not the case, Sayed paints a picture of how dangerous it is for women right now in Afghanistan. “In Canada, it is good. Men and women work together. Women have rights. In Afghanistan, no, this is not allowed. Everything is for men, women have no power.” He tells me again that unless I had lived there, I simply could not imagine how it is. His mother and sisters have no home to go to, no means of support, no men left in the family who could possibly help them. And they now have four months left before they are sent back.
The UN does not have a strong presence in Iran, a closed country, so they cannot get help there. When Sayed asked for advice from his friends who had also been refugees, they told him, “Talk to the Church. They can tell your story, and maybe someone can help. Maybe a Church can sponsor your mother and sisters, and keep them from danger.”
This is that story, that cry for help. It is true, I cannot imagine the situation Sayed and his family are in. I cannot imagine the hopelessness and fear, the impossible choices, how I would feel and what I would do if presented with the same situation. Sayed told me that he is praying, and asked me to pray as well, which I do with a good will. Will you pray too?
More information about Canada's current response to Afghan refugees: READ HERE
Written by Rob Perry, who recently spent three months in Greece, in Mavrovouni Refugee camp on the island of Lesvos, providing English schooling for elementary-school-aged children.
At first, the children came for classes in tents which were identical to those that they lived in. Part of each of my classes included singing. I hoped to teach the children some English through songs, like Hello, Goodbye by the Beatles or Lean on Me by Bill Withers.
I still smile when I think of walking through the camp and hearing one particular 10-year-old girl from Afghanistan singing, “Lean on me, when you’re not strong, I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on.”
But due to COVID-19 fears, classes were cancelled for the last half of my time there. During this time we took homework tent-to-tent to each student. At first I was really disappointed, but this challenge wound up providing wonderful opportunities to connect with students individually, and also to get to know their families.
What prompted me to go to Lesvos?
Five years ago, I was privileged to join our partners for a visit to Dzaleka Refugee Camp in Malawi. I remember how inspirational it was to see churches bring hope and help to the residents of the camp. And how humbling and uplifting it was to hear the incredible choirs in the refugee camp churches. However, the most impactful part of the visit for me was an hour I spent with about 30 youth from one of the refugee churches.
The recurring theme of this conversation, the thing most on these young peoples’ minds, was education. They dreamt of opportunities for higher education, but for many if not most, this would be a very difficult goal to achieve. NGOs and churches were working hard to offer educational opportunities and programming. However, in their setting, education remains a very challenging aspiration.
Since this visit five years ago, the importance of education in the refugee world has been reaffirmed for me many times, particularly with my time on Lesvos. For these children and their families, education is a bright hope, a positive way to spend time during monotonous and challenging days in the camp – but more than that – education is a key to having a fresh and positive start wherever in the world displaced people eventually wind up. This is true in Greece, as well as for the teenagers in Dzaleka.
And the same can also be said for young people who are impacted through IAFR’s other partnerships, such as the Beirut Nazarene church’s amazing school program (STEP), or the African Hope Learning Centre in Cairo, supporting Sudanese refugee children, to whom we have sent support personnel.
At IAFR Canada we continue to prayerfully discern where in the world God wants us to be, with whom he would like us to partner, and what major priority pillars he would like us to erect.
We are in the early days of discerning what our engagement with education for displaced people around the world can and should look like. We would love to invite you to join us in prayer as we discern how we can best partner with others and/or create our own initiatives to help meet this vital need.
Won’t you join with us in responding to the needs and desires of displaced children and youth? They are hoping and dreaming for a good future. They believe, as we do, that education is key to such a future. We at IAFR are enthusiastic about being a part of this solution.
Footnote: The partners Rob went to Dzaleka with were There is Hope and IAFR US. World University Service of Canada and There is Hope are the NGO’s doing educational assistance for residents of Dzaleka. On Lesvos, Rob was grateful to work with Beyond Borders and EuroRelief.
Written by Jacob Mau, with Rob Perry. *
In 2013, Rob Perry and his ministry colleagues at The Peoples Church in Toronto began praying about how to support forcibly displaced people. Today they are fulfilling that vision through IAFR Canada, a ministry with over a dozen staff leading partnerships in six countries along the refugee highway. God used a Refugee Highway Partnership North America (RHPNA) event to spark the connections that became IAFR Canada. Here’s how it happened.
“At the beginning, we were really focused on camps,” Rob says. “We had backgrounds in urban ministry and church planting. We were praying about maybe helping start churches or some kind of prayer tent in refugee camps. But we didn’t have any idea how one even accesses those places. It seemed like an impossibility. We were asking, ‘Where would the money come from? What would it look like? What’s God’s timing?’”
In early 2016, the group took an initial step much closer to home than a distant camp. They formed a refugee housing ministry in Toronto called People’s House. That summer, Rob and several others working at the house attended the RHPNA Roundtable. They met Tom Albinson, one of the early visionaries of the RHP, and founder of the International Association for Refugees.
“Here we had this guy talking about partnering with churches in refugee camps, partnering with Christian organizations--basically what we’d all been praying about for three years--without even realizing it,” says Rob. “We discovered an organization that we didn’t know existed, but seemed to resonate very strongly in our hearts.”
Over the next year, Rob and his team did vision trips and meetings with Tom and others from IAFR. One was a trip to Dzaleka refugee camp in Malawi, where Rob learned there were already 60 indigenous churches providing care to the community. It was there the vision for IAFR Canada began to take shape.
Today IAFR Canada — a sister to IAFR U.S. — consists of members of the original prayer group of 2013, plus many others who’ve joined the team’s vision. IAFR works with organizations and churches who are supporting forcibly displaced people in Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Uganda, Malawi, and Canada.
“IAFR Canada would definitely not exist in its current form if we hadn’t met Tom and his team at the RHPNA Roundtable in 2016,” says Rob. “I’m sure God would have found a way to lead us where he wanted us to go, but it would have looked very different. God was amazing in bringing us an incredible team, the right people at the right time.”
* This story was originally shared through the Refugee Highway Partnership, North America. IAFR Canada is part of this invaluable network, prayerfully connecting with each other for the good of people who are forcibly displaced.
A joking conversation about cleaning bathrooms during the Ride for Refuge was the beginning of Darlene’s journey as a companion with Open Homes Hamilton.
“We were walking in the Ride for Refuge last year and my friend Mary* was saying what a pain it is to clean four bathrooms. Well, we were walking with Katie [a member of the Open Homes leadership team], who had just been telling us about home hosting for refugee claimants. So I said, ‘You could host! And I’ll be a companion.’”
The spur of the moment idea soon turned into a reality: a group of friends from a Meeting House home church attended a volunteer orientation, submitted their police checks and paperwork, and waited for a call that there was a refugee claimant who was a good fit for Mary’s home.
Now, almost a year later, they’re not only gearing up for another Ride--they’re also actively supporting a young refugee claimant from Ethiopia named Abel*. Mary is the host, and the other members of the group are companions: volunteers who accompany newly arrived refugee claimants and offer friendship and support with everyday settlement needs like bus orientation, job searches, and community connections. Open Homes Hamilton is a Hamilton-based program of IAFR Canada.
Darlene had been volunteering at the Ride’s Hamilton location for years, and was glad there was a way to continue to participate, even during a pandemic. Teams can do the classic bike or walk, or they can choose from a range of “freestyle” options, from sewing to baking to reading to just about anything you can imagine.
“Abel* is a wonderful young man. We’re his 4 mamas--though we try not to mother him too much!” says Darlene.
They’ve helped Abel get connected to community beyond his 4 mamas--from volunteering at a street mission every week to connecting with another young man who was supported by Open Homes Hamilton. That connection is proving invaluable, not only for the friendship of someone closer to his own age, but also for the support that he’s received in understanding the refugee hearing process.
“When he gets stressed out, I tell him, ‘We’re the warriors, we’ll be praying!’” says Darlene.
Last year’s Ride was an opportunity to do something positive in the midst of an overwhelming pandemic, and it led the team down a path they hadn’t imagined--but God had in store for them all the same.
This year, they’ve seen up-close the impact of their fundraising power on refugee claimants, and they’re ready and raring to Ride for Refuge again.
*Some names changed to protect confidentiality.
Laura Dobrowolski is the Executive Director of IAFR Canada and is looking forward to the day she can reschedule an in-person meeting with the I Live Again Uganda team.
This pandemic has impacted every part of the globe, but its impact in refugee camps has been especially challenging. Our partners at I Live Again Uganda (ILA) have continued to be present and to serve throughout this time. I interviewed them after the first wave, when everyone thought lock-downs were over. We are so very thankful for this partnership and the work they were able to continue doing throughout this tumultuous past year.
Q: At the beginning of the pandemic, countries started to close borders amid concerns of the spread of Covid. We flew IAFR staff home on extremely short notice and all our international trips were put on hold. I heard that most NGO’s left Uganda. Since your team is comprised of Ugandans, you were already home. It must have been really hard for your team! Can you tell us what happened in the refugee camp?
A: Many NGOs at the refugee settlement had to put a hold on operations. Some of them left. Others changed strategies in their services. It was a stressful and challenging time for NGOs.
Q: We know you had lots of challenges, including sickness in your team members and families, and more. What really impressed me about ILA was your ability to adapt. Can you tell me more about your response to the pandemic?
A: We gathered our leadership, prayed and considered how we can continue to serve our communities. We had to look at all the protocols and restrictions in place. We became a part of the COVID19 task force right away so that we would be aware of the situation in the communities we serve and provide our programs and services out of knowledge.
The need of washing of hands during the pandemic was essential and even mandated. Yet, many of those we serve were unable to purchase soap. We quickly recognized the need to distribute soap and sanitizer. We also provided some phone counseling.
We recognized early on that we need to reach the youth. We knew that they were being neglected. We wanted them to be knowledgeable and be safe during the pandemic.
We brought music in to bring awareness and education, to combat COVID19 and restore hope during the lockdowns. Music was a way that we could relate to the youth. The music would reach and get information out regarding pandemic protocols. It also kept us safely distanced and still providing support.
The level of teenage pregnancy increased due to the lockdown. Schools were closed. We also did radio talk shows on teenage pregnancy to bring awareness and education to the situation. We really encouraged youth to remain strong and full of hope through our programs.
Q: Did Covid spread in the camp? What was the impact of the virus there?
A: COVID19 didn’t spread in the refugee settlement. There were less than 10 cases of COVID19 in our settlement. We think the spread was stopped quickly because of restrictions and tracing of infections. The refugee community already understands that they must follow structures and rules. This understanding helped them adjust when restrictions were put in place.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to add or comment on how this year has uniquely changed or impacted the work of ILA?
A: COVID19 has challenged us to rethink how we can serve in the midst of restrictions and a pandemic. Other NGOs were unable to pivot during this season. We are thankful that we were able to navigate this season and continue to provide much needed services to our communities.
June 7th Update: “Last night our President spoke, and we are now back into a 42 day lock-down. Schools closed immediately, travel between districts prohibited, curfews. Please keep us and those we serve in your prayer. Cases have risen and they are doing what they can to stop the spread.”
Please pray for the ILA Uganda team and everyone they serve.
It was hard to plan with so much uncertainty. Many of our programs were built around gathering in groups and this was not possible due to protocols and restrictions.
Alison Witt is an IAFR Canada team member, living in Hamilton, Ontario. Alison leads our Refugee Housing Initiatives and the Church Engagement team.
When I asked Danny, a volunteer with Open Homes Hamilton, why his family chose to invite refugees to live with them, he quickly responded, “because we want our kids to see us live out what we say we believe”. He is not alone. Many Open Homes volunteers are families with young children who believe Jesus is serious when he tells us to practice hospitality.
It is easy to see what a vital role children play in creating a community of belonging for newly arrived refugees. However, we only recently realized that while we offer initial orientation and ongoing training for adults volunteering with Open Homes, we don’t actually provide any preparation or education for the children.
That got us thinking.
Over the past 2 years IAFR Canada’s Church Engagement Team has been working hard at developing training materials for churches. One of the things that gives us great joy is seeing churches discover the unique ways that God might want them to engage with forcibly displaced people. I might be biased, but I think IAFR has created some excellent resources and tools to help churches on this journey. But when I looked at what is in our resource toolbox, I couldn’t find anything suitable for children! They are all created with adults in mind.
Another ‘aha’ moment!
Stories of refugees are woven throughout the whole Bible, yet they rarely get highlighted in Sunday School classrooms. Wouldn’t it be great for children to hear some of these stories and to learn how deeply God cares about the forcibly displaced? Wouldn’t it be great for them to learn about refugee issues in a way that they could understand? And wouldn’t it be amazing if children in churches all across Canada were motivated and eager to befriend children from refugee backgrounds arriving in our communities?
Our Church Engagement Team commissioned a few of us to work at developing some resources specifically for children. We shared these thoughts with Cathy Fairley, one of the best elementary school teachers we know. She was immediately on board with our vision to create a curriculum that churches could use to help children learn about refugees. She also convinced her husband Craig, a graphic designer, to help with the project. We were on a roll!
We are delighted to share with you our hot-off-the-press children’s curriculum: Growing Together: helping our children learn about refugees. This series of 4 lessons is designed to be used in the context of a church children’s program- but the lessons but could easily be adapted to use at home with your family, as part of a refugee learning workshop or at a Christian school or day camp. The first lesson was created as a single, ’stand alone’ learning experience that will provide children with a general introduction to basic refugee realities. For a more in-depth study we encourage you to complete the four part series.
Throughout the series we use the analogy of a potted plant to help convey the concepts of survival, welcome, and support. A key story from the Bible and a Scripture verse is also a core part of each lesson. Honestly, there are so many fascinating refugee stories in the Bible, it was hard to choose!
God brought along a gifted artist, Carolyn Amorin, who created colouring pages and activity sheets to accompany each lesson. You will also find photographs from IAFR partner ministries around the world and a personal message from someone who has had experience living as a refugee in each lesson. We want children to know that refugees are courageous and resilient people with much to offer.
It is our prayer and our deep desire that this resource will help children grow in their understanding and respect for people around the world who find themselves in need of refuge.
You can download the curriculum HERE. Click here to view a sample page.
We would be delighted to share it with you and would love your feedback.
Tom is an IAFR Canada team member, leading our Toronto Newcomer Support project.
On March 17th, 2020 at 1:00 am I got a call.
“This is getting out of hand; you need to come home.”
It had been almost eight months since I arrived in Cairo, Egypt to serve for a year. My days were spent at a school for refugee children called African Hope Learning Centre (AHLC). More than ten African countries are represented by about five hundred refugee students and teachers.
I came as a member of the IAFR Canada team to support our partner, AHLC, by providing everyday support in the school. All the teachers are also refugees, so there were many days when a teacher could not make it to school. They had to spend up to three days waiting in the Passport and Immigration office to renew their 3-month visa. As African refugees in Egypt, they also did not have accessible health care services, so there were many sick days. I would step in and teach classes on days like these.
Other days I was
My biggest project while in Cairo was to start the school’s Music Club. Back in Canada, donors to IAFR’s Christmas Project made it possible for me to buy five guitars and five ukuleles for the school. We would have lessons during the break between the morning and afternoon shift of school. About thirty students in total were a part of the music club. Music is an incredible, healing outlet that most of these refugee students had never had an opportunity to explore. For months we had two lessons a week and everyone was loving it and progressing well.
I was able to be part of so many amazing things at AHLC, and my absolute favourite was spending some unstructured time with the students. I loved sitting and talking to them during the afternoon break, playing games and being silly at recess, or running into students when I would walk through the souq (market) on weekends. In my eyes, these connections were far beyond anything else I did in Egypt.
I was amazed to see how easily these kind, compassionate and intelligent young people welcomed me into their community. I immediately became “Teacher Tom” and never once felt like an outsider. We started talking about their families and how difficult it was to be a black African in Cairo. We talked about dreams of leaving Cairo and resettling in another country. We talked about God and questions they had about the Bible. And, most importantly, we prayed together. The best part is that none of this was done on a one-way street. I was constantly prayed for and blessed by the students.
Even with a few very homesick days, things were amazing in Maadi, Cairo. I had my school that I loved, amazing students and teachers, I even had my favourite restaurants and fruit stands in the souq where they knew me by name. Life was good.
On March 17th at 1:00 am I got a call. “This is getting out of hand, you need to come home.”
The COVID 19 pandemic was starting to become a big thing. Entire countries were locking down, borders were closing, airports shutting down. But it was almost unnoticeable in Egypt. Life was still normal. I still went and sat in my favourite cafes drinking coffee, people were out on the streets without a mask in sight, and it was only the day before I got the call to go home that the government had ordered the school to close. I had heard about the virus from people at home and on social media, but I had no idea it was becoming as serious as the world was saying it is.
We had a storm which had flooded the school, so it had already been closed for a couple days. The day we finished cleaning was the day the government closed the schools all across the country. This meant it had already been a week since I had seen my students. And then I got the call.
On the phone was Rob, my mentor, friend and one of the IAFR Canada directors. He told me that with the uncertainty of the border closures and flight cancellations, I had to get home as quickly as possible. This call was at 1:00 am Cairo time on the 17th. By the end of that phone call I had a flight booked for 8:00 am on the 18th. I immediately started packing.
I spent the next day saying goodbye to anyone I could. I had a few friends close by in Maadi and the WhatsApp numbers of some of the teachers at the school. I spent my last day on a mini goodbye tour around Maadi. I said goodbye to my friends at the fruit stands in the souq and at my coffee shops and restaurants. But I never got the chance to say goodbye to my students. With the school unexpectedly already closed for almost a week, I never got to tell them I was leaving.
And then I went to the airport. My flight was cancelled. The Egyptian government was closing all airports until further notice. I thought I was going to be stuck in Egypt. I have some very well-connected people in my life who helped me as I panicked. We booked a flight to London, UK and I spent a night there while we found a flight to Toronto. After an incredibly stressful thirty-five hour travel day, I arrived in Toronto on March 19th. My entire life shifted in just 48 hours. I started that 48 hours in one continent and ended it in another.
My life circumstance completely changed, and it was totally out of my control. I now have a brand-new appreciation for what refugees experience. To be uprooted with no control. The difference for me is that my life or well-being was never in danger. I was heading home; I knew where I was going to end up. Some refugees have years of limbo. My limbo was one night in a hotel in London, eating fish and chips. I completely understand that my experience was a tiny fraction of what they experience, what it’s like to be uprooted the way a forcibly displaced person is.
My year back in Canada has been very good. I got engaged, became a stepfather, started a new family and got involved in some amazing ministries in Toronto. There has been much to bring me joy during this time where many find it hard to find joy in the isolation and lock-downs. God has been so good to me.
As amazing as it has been since I got home, there is still something that feels incomplete and that is my relationships with my students. From the beginning of my time in Cairo, I knew my time at AHLC was temporary; my return flight was booked for June 20th. But I never got to say goodbye. A handful of students have tracked me down on social media and we exchange messages every now and then, but there still hasn't been the closure needed for relationships like this. It remains incomplete. I wait somewhat impatiently for the day that I can fly there and hear them call me “Teacher Tom” again, to properly say goodbye to these students that I love dearly.
One Last Thought: During my time with AHLC, quite a few people said things like, “You’re going to change those kid’s lives.” or, “They’re so lucky to have you over there.” This made me uncomfortable. I was just another guy going to help at the school. I was a temporary fixture, and I knew that from day one. The truth is that my relationship with these students changed my life.
Our vision is to help people survive and recover from forced displacement. We do this together with the church, both globally, and locally in Canada.