News Local

Local Christians and Muslims gather in support of Syrian Refugees

By Ryan Paulsen, The Daily Observer

Ryan Paulsen / Daily Observer
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Mahmoud Karam, president of the Ottawa Valley Islamic Centre, addresses an ecumenical, inter-faith gathering at St. James Church in Eganville, called together as a show of hospitality and support for a family of Syrian refugees that the group Valley Welcome hopes to bring to the area.

Ryan Paulsen / Daily Observer
Mahmoud Karam, president of the Ottawa Valley Islamic Centre, addresses an ecumenical, inter-faith gathering at St. James Church in Eganville, called together as a show of hospitality and support for a family of Syrian refugees that the group Valley Welcome hopes to bring to the area.

Members of the Ottawa Valley Christian and Muslim communities gathered together in Eganville on Sunday afternoon for an ecumenical and interfaith celebration at St. James Catholic Church.

The community service was organized by the Ministerial Association of Eganville, a group of church leaders from a variety of Christian denominations, and Valley Welcome, a community group founded by Leslie Soopalu and Kilmeny Heron with the aim of sponsoring a refugee family from Syria and help them re-settle in the Ottawa Valley.

“We're having a Syrian family coming in to the area,” says Father Ken O'Brien, priest at St. James, “and we're going to support them. This is the culmination of a lot of hard work that has taken place, and the theme of this celebration is hospitality. We're showing hospitality to our brothers and sisters who are fleeing their country.”

The scores of people filling the St. James pews was a strong show of support, and one that delighted Soopalu and the other organizers.

“We were certainly hoping that it would be a big crowd,” she said afterwards, “and here they are. It's incredible.”

Before the gathering began in earnest, Heron welcomed the crowd and gave an update on the recent progress of Valley Welcome in their quest to bring a Syrian refugee family to the area.

“It's such an honour and a pleasure to share with you this amazing coming together of our community for such an important cause,” she said. “We are here because we have chosen to be compassionate and generous and to challenge the fear that we have been encountering in some parts of our community.”

She told the crowd of a recent “angry phone call” she received from someone opposed to the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the Valley. Despite the opposition of some, however, she received uproarious applause when she announced that their group and the surrounding community had managed to raise $42,000 to bring a family to Canada.

“Being here today,” she concluded, “I am confident that love and compassion will prevail and we will, with open arms, welcome a Syrian refugee family and help them find peace and acceptance in their new home country.”

The service involved prayer and song, and was led by leaders of the local Anglican, United, Lutheran, Catholic and non-denominational churches. The featured speaker was Mahmoud Karam, president of the Ottawa Valley Islamic Centre, a mosque in Deep River, who offered support on behalf of the Muslim community and gave a brief introduction on the basic tenets of Islam as well as giving a few short readings from the Qur'an.

According to Karam, cooperative endeavours between local Christian and Muslim communities is a relatively new phenomenon, but one that he hopes will blossom into a long-lasting relationship.

“When this opportunity came to work with others and help others and provide some support,” he said after the conclusion of the service, “we started working with other churches and groups in the valley. So this is a recent effort, but hopefully it will continue. This is the start, and I hope this will not end, but will continue like this.”

With anti-Muslim sentiment making the news across Canada in recent weeks, reaching terrible levels with the burning of a Peterborough mosque and alleged assaults against Muslim women in Toronto and Montreal, Karam considers himself and his community fortunate to be in friendly territory in Deep River.

“We are lucky because most of us work at CNL. We live in Deep River, and we work in Deep River or Chalk River, and people know us. In the morning, they are our colleagues and at night they are our neighbours, so we are lucky in that sense and we did not get any negative feedback. We have good support.”

Karam also says that the local Muslim community will be taking steps to ensure that they take every opportunity to welcome and introduce their neighbours in the Valley to their faith and culture.

“On our side, we should be more open, and be opening the mosque doors for others to come and join us. People who come and visit us, they don't know what the inside of the mosque looks like on the inside, what we have, what we do, what we practice, how we practice, or any of this.”

For Soopalu, the fear and trepidation that some have been expressing about the introduction of Syrian refugees to Canada is more of a distraction than an actual issue in its own right.

“I don't feel like I have any reason to be afraid,” she says, “so I'm just proceeding from a place of compassion and going from there. Not everyone has to support the project; that's okay. I don't feel the need to try to proselytize and change people's minds who aren't interested. I just hope that they can be compassionate and kind as well.”

When asked if she ever worries for the safety of those refugees who will end up settling in the Ottawa Valley, she says that those fears are similarly secondary.

“Frankly, there are so many other things to deal with, like getting them to a safe place. I really don't want to have to think that I have to worry about people in the Ottawa Valley being evil to them. I don't want to waste brain space thinking about that. Let's just bring them to a place of safety and get their kids in school. They've been living in the refugee camps for years. There are so many more important things to think about.”

Valley Welcome's focus on hospitality and caring over fear is something that stood out to Maj. Mario Gaulin, senior chaplain at Garrison Petawawa. For Gaulin, who may find himself coordinating faith-based services if Petawawa should become a destination for large numbers of government-sponsored refugees, saw Sunday's gathering as a natural extension of his own faith.

“To me, this means we're offering the true spirit of Christianity,” he said in the church hall as people from all faiths shared snacks and coffee, “which is hospitality, compassion and care for your fellow brothers and sisters. It's love in action, and to me that's very significant. And by cooperating with the Muslim community, you show a desire for a better community and a better Canada, because we're a multicultural society. If you think about it, we were all immigrants at some point.”

For more information about Valley Welcome, visit their website at www.valleywelcome.org or their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/ValleyWelcome.

ryan.paulsen@sunmedia.ca

Twitter: @PRyanPaulsen