Like many Canadians, Debbie Rix was spurred to take action when she saw the now-iconic picture of the dead Syrian boy on the beach. Alan Kurdi — beloved 3-year-old son, brother, and nephew — was photographed facedown in the sand, a casualty of Syria’s hyperviolent civil war, and Rix couldn’t look away. “My parents are immigrants and when I was growing up, the house was always full of strangers who needed a little help,” says Rix, who runs an upscale general store in downtown Toronto. “I just felt like there must be something I could do.”
Rix joined a private sponsorship group of about 50 people — organized largely through friends and acquaintances over Facebook — and set about raising funds and collecting household goods to support the arrival of a Syrian family who would have to start their lives all over again.
Rix and her group were matched with a Syrian family in October 2015. In anticipation of their arrival, Rix and her sponsorship group rented and furnished a house on the outskirts of Toronto, procuring beds, sheets, tables, chairs, couches, curtains, rugs, and clothing mostly through donations. They went shopping at a Middle Eastern food market, stocking up on items they hoped would be familiar: pitas, olives, hummus, chickpeas, labneh (strained yogurt), and rice. They looked for packaging with Arabic writing. The group was also given welcome packages by a local Muslim association, which contained a Quran, a scarf, and a few other items.
Rix was hopeful that these things they were collecting would provide a decent start, but there was a lot of guesswork involved. The Canadians didn’t know much about the Syrians, just that there would be eight people in total — a brother and sister who each had their own families, plus their mother. They had owned a restaurant in Bosra, in southern Syria, and had escaped to an apartment in Amman. But they were otherwise strangers to Rix and her group. Only one family member — the adult brother — spoke English, and conversations were largely conducted over email. After the Syrians were approved to travel to Canada in August 2016, Rix met the entire family over FaceTime. “We just smiled at each other, waving and all of us saying hello,” says Rix.