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When Wasim Meslmani, a Syrian refugee, started helping new immigrants set up their lives in Canada, he was still living in a basement in Jordan. Nonetheless, through the website he started, Hand-to-Hand Supporting Newcomers, he helped new arrivals in Canada prepare for job interviews, enroll in language classes, and find winter boots for their children. “He was playing the role of a sponsor, even before he came here,” says Stephen Watt, a Canadian who helped sponsor Mr. Meslmani’s eventual immigration to Canada. “As much as I have gotten, I wanted to return some smaller part to others in my situation,” says Meslmani, who today lives in Mr. Watt’s basement. “It’s like this in Canada, where people say they feel like they belonged when they arrived in the airport,” says Watt. “So you feel like you're part of the community, which allows you to immediately start thinking, ‘Well, now that I’m part of this community I can start extending the favor to other people.’ ”
The story began with a Canadian man named Stephen Watt. A man who, like thousands of other citizens of this country, was jolted in 2015 from the comforts of his middle-class life to aid victims of far-off conflict in Syria.
But Mr. Watt's narrative, one that he's the first to admit is typical, turned into a story that centers just as much around a Syrian man named Wasim Meslmani: a refugee whom Watt helped bring to Canada, yet who in his own act of benevolence, became the “go-to guy” for newcomers here before he even arrived.
The two, on a recent Sunday afternoon, sit in Watt’s living room in Toronto. They bear an uncanny resemblance: fair-skinned with beards shaven the same way. “We often get mistaken as brothers,” says Watt, Mr. Meslmani agreeing with a nod and shy laugh.
They are about to film a video for the Facebook page that Meslmani started when he was still living in a basement in Jordan as a refugee and that the two now run together. It’s called Hand-to-Hand, Supporting Newcomers, and its purpose is just that: to help new arrivals in Canada prepare for job interviews, enroll in language classes, find winter boots for their children.
“As much as I have gotten, I wanted to return some smaller part to others in my situation,” says Meslmani, who today lives in Watt’s basement.
Populism and anti-immigrant sentiment may have flared across the West as Syrian refugees fled their homes, but so too has altruism, among Canadians and Americans, Germans and Jordanians. Watt’s circle alone has sponsored scores of refugees and their families – including Hassan al-Kontar, the Syrian stranded for seven months at the airport in Kuala Lumpur who just arrived in Vancouver. Often lost, though, is the story of the refugee who, motivated with a sense of belonging or purpose, is playing a key role him- or herself in the humanitarian spirit of the era.
“This virtuous circle, it’s the way life should be,” says Watt. “And it’s like this in Canada, where people say they feel like they belonged when they arrived in the airport,” he says over kebabs with Meslmani after the video shoot. “So you feel like you're part of the community, which allows you to immediately start thinking, ‘Well, now that I'm part of this community I can start extending the favor to other people.”’
“It gets away from that idea of the white hero, the Canadian all-powerful sponsor, and the lowly Syrian newcomer,” Watt says.
Mobilizing to help
The image of Alan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Kurdish Syrian who drowned on a Mediterranean coast in September 2015, was a turning point for Canadians regarding the Syrian war. They donated funds, or called their lawyer friends. Others went to volunteer in Greece, where desperate refugees were crossing from Turkey. Many of them sponsored refugees with their own time and money.
The Canadian government resettled more than 25,000 Syrian refugees between November 2015 and February 2016. Some 14,000 of them were brought in with the support of regular citizens, as part of Canada’s landmark private sponsorship program, in which individuals or organizations raise money for housing and pledge to provide moral and logistical support to new refugees.
At the time, Watt had responded to a request from Community Matters Toronto, a neighborhood organization, for volunteers to help with its Syria project. They put him to work creating a Facebook page called Syrian Sanctuary, intended to channel newcomers to their services. Instead, it caught the attention of thousands of Syrians outside Canada who contacted him. One was Meslmani.
Meslmani was not in Syria during the war, but it still uprooted him. He had been living in the United Arab Emirates since 2007, and when his job contract expired, the country refused to renew his visa. His only choice was to go home or flee to a country that would take him: He found one in Jordan.
There, he and his brother Hussam were doing odd jobs in home renovation under the table to survive. Once he was caught and told if he ever worked again he would be sent straight to Syria. He spent his time blogging about nutrition, what he studied at home, when he saw Watt’s Facebook page.
Meslmani and Watt's online friendship grew for months before Watt started the sponsorship process. Watt insists it’s possible to know those you’ve never met face-to-face – and says of all those he has since supported, he’s never misjudged. The application process itself requires painstaking details that trace the most vulnerable and excruciating moments of a refugee’s trauma. “How often do you sit with your closest friends and say, ‘let’s talk about the hardest part of your life in extreme details?’ ”
Aid from afar
Meslmani says that as his friendship with Watt and other sponsors in his circle grew, he realized there was a hole in the support network. There was no shortage of organizations trying to help, but they weren’t always working together. Some refused to cross-post information from other groups, even though they shared the same goals.
Meslmani decided to try to bridge that gap with Hand-to-Hand, which Watt says quickly became the “Craigslist for refugees in Canada” – ultimately doing what his page, Syrian Sanctuary, had sought to do. “He was playing the role of a sponsor, even before he came here,” Watt says.
Bruno Moynie, a Frenchman who volunteered to shoot the video in Watt’s living room, starting following Meslmani online like so many others who noticed a man posting about this family’s housing needs or that job fair. At some point Mr. Moynie had his own piece of furniture to donate to a family, which Meslmani managed adroitly, to the exact address and hour.
That was when Moynie learned Meslmani wasn't local. Moynie recounts: “‘By the way, I’m coming to Canada next week,’ he said. I said, ‘What do you mean, you are coming back? You were traveling somewhere?’ ‘No, I live in Jordan.’ ‘What do you mean? You’ve never been here?’ ” They both laugh.
The day they are filming this video, it’s exactly one year and a day since Meslmani started Hand-to-Hand.
“Attention, 1, 2, 3, and rolling,” Moynie says. Meslmani addresses the camera in Arabic. He’s creating a video about Canadian culture, from manners to national foods. In another video, they run through specific “do’s and don’ts” in job interviews.
Meslmani says this might seem basic, but not all newcomers have equal access to information. Government-sponsored refugees don’t have the same support as those privately sponsored. They film videos in Arabic because many newcomers lack English. “I focused on these people, because many of them have a lack of information about how it works,” he says.
‘We can help one another’
These days, Watt has picked up some of the work running Hand-to-Hand because, after all, Meslmani is now a newcomer, having arrived in Canada only on Aug. 2. He is busy studying academic English so he can pursue his dreams of becoming a nutritionist or physiotherapist, while trying to find work in home repairs or renovation.
And now Watt’s work as a sponsor has grown even more intense. With a full-time job, his evenings and weekends are full of logistics, filming, mentoring – time he says he used to spend trying to pen novels. The Meslmani brothers are one of six families Watt has co-sponsored in the past two years; he’s also helped sponsor individuals in the LGBT community, written over a dozen applications (spending Christmas of 2016 doing just that), and helped refugees find jobs and housing once they arrive.
The obligation for any Canadian sponsor is a year, but in reality there is no end point. “I love these guys,” Watt says. And he says the experience of sponsorship has shifted his perspective on what is happening in the world.
“Normally when you watch the news you feel hopeless. And once you start – Wasim can probably relate to this – once you start helping people, there's no bottom to it. Not in a bad way, in a good way,” he says. “You suddenly realize that as an individual, you can help, in major ways. It’s like, wow, this awakening, like suddenly the news looks different, it isn't just a bunch of tragedies that are beyond your scope.”
Meslmani nods his head in agreement, but he talks about his impact in more concrete terms: the families whose homes he helped furnish, the job leads, the online mentoring, and the thousands of connections.
It turns out that for as “typical” as Watt considers himself, Meslmani considers himself pretty typical too. And in fact each day more and more newcomers join his page, to help new newcomers. It’s the purpose in the very name of the Facebook page he started, well before he knew where he’d be today. “My one hand can’t do anything,” says Meslmani. “So I shared my hand with other people, so we can help one another. Hand to hand.”
This story is Part 12 of the series “On the Move: the faces, places, and politics of migration.”