Compassion Made Manifest and a Lot of Love
Bring Syrian Refugee Family to Canadian Island

Written by: Eihei Peter Levitt

Syrian refugees Raina Khaldi, and her children Adam, Serina and Mimi, are feeling safe now on the remote Canadian Salt Spring Island.

Syrian refugees Raina Khaldi, and her children Adam, Serina and Mimi, are feeling safe now on the remote Canadian Salt Spring Island.
Photos: Stasia Garraway, Samer Khaldi, Peter Levitt

A family of five Syrian refugees is finding a safe home on the tiny Canadian island of Salt Spring, helped by Buddhist and non-Buddhist supporters.

Serina Khaldi reading to her new classmates, with an Arabic poem behind her.

Serina Khaldi reading to her new classmates, with an Arabic poem behind her.

The three children are attending a local school, while the father, who was an attorney in the Syrian city of Aleppo, now works at a grocery store. They arrived in July, after a harrowing journey through Lebanon, then Turkey.

Salt Spring Island, with a population of about 10,000, is one of the Gulf Islands, west of Vancouver, B.C.

The resettlement program was launched by the Salt Spring Zen Circle in concert with the Salt Spring Unitarian Church, but has broadened out as many other islanders have stepped forward and made enormous efforts to bring the refugees to our island home.

The whole community is getting a chance to let the dharma be actualized in very personal terms. The refugees are good people who were caught up in a war, with warm, sweet, bright-eyed children who only want to play as freely as any others. If the dharma can’t serve that, what are we doing?

The five Syrians were actually practicing Unitarians back in Syria, which has made the integration process easier. But when they arrived only the father, Samer, spoke English, although the children have been picking it up fast.

The children’s eyes lit up when they first signed up at the town library. From left, Raina Khaldi, Shirley Graham, children Serina, Mimi, Adam, Samer Khaldi, and Anne Marshall, chair of the Salt Spring Refugee Sponsorship Group.

The children’s eyes lit up when they first signed up at the town library. From left, Raina Khaldi, Shirley Graham, children Serina, Mimi, Adam, Samer Khaldi, and Anne Marshall, chair of the Salt Spring Refugee Sponsorship Group.

We got the children enrolled in schools, where they’re very happy. They love being with the other children, and the entire family feels safe.

The project launched for me personally in September of 2015, when the papers and other outlets were drenched with the gut-wrenching plight of Syrian refugees. My wife, Shirley Graham, looked up at me from viewing the latest photographs to come across the wires and said, so simply, “We have to have a Syrian family come to live with us.”

Such a statement might come as a shock in some homes, but Shirley, a poet and child psychologist, has always viewed service as basic to human living. So I stood where I was and took it in.

 Just days before, it turns out, I had told a friend, “I can’t stand being in the world and doing nothing about this.” And now, here we were.

The children learning to play piano.

The children learning to play piano.

I have no doubt there were millions of people across the world at that very moment with the same inclination, but, like us, not knowing how to proceed.

After Shirley spoke, I knew the task of bringing a family would be far larger than our personal financial and administrative capacities could handle. And so I said, “This would be great for our sangha to take on, don’t you think?” She did, and the flicker of light got a little brighter.

So I wrote to our Zen sangha, the Salt Spring Zen Circle. Almost immediately, people replied by email, pledging financial support, application filling support, physical items needed for settlement, offers of administrative support, fund-raising suggestions, and more.

Samer Khaldi, an attorney back in Syria, for the moment is working at a store checkout line.

Samer Khaldi, an attorney back in Syria, for the moment is working at a store checkout line.

The next day I also put a notice on the community website, called the Salt Spring Exchange, and asked if anyone on island was interested in bringing refugees from Syria to Salt Spring. Again, good-hearted, concerned people from across the island responded, in much the same terms as our smaller Zen community.

One of the responses that caught my attention was from Mary Toynbee, who wrote to say that the Salt Spring Unitarian Church was very interested in pursuing this right away. She suggested I join her to meet with other faith leaders the following week to discuss what might be done. Things were moving fast.

 Within days of that meeting, eight islanders formed the Salt Spring Refugee Sponsorship Group, (SSRSG) which spun the dharma wheel into action faster than you could say the awkward acronym we devised.

Space won’t permit me to go into more details, but let me say this: Keeping in mind the dire situation of the refugees, our group quickly divided up into committees and went to work. We wanted to make sure that islanders from every walk of life, and friends of islanders, would have the opportunity to feel a personal stake in accomplishing our common goal. Our discussions always had inclusiveness in mind.

Poet Shirley Graham, and teacher and writer Eihei Peter Levitt, as couple launched the refugee project.

Poet Shirley Graham, and teacher and writer Eihei Peter Levitt, as a couple launched the refugee project.

We determined how much money would be needed to secure the family’s sponsorship. We realized the amounts suggested by the government would likely be less than the family would need, and so the fundraising committee came up with multiple strategies to raise the balance.

In addition, once people on island heard what was on the move (no person is an island, but every island is a grapevine,) individuals came up with their own supportive actions and got busy. I could not be more grateful or proud of our island community.

The upshot is that we raised $100,000, including from a rock-out fund-raising concert on Jan. 1, 2016, that featured some of Canada’s great musicians who live on the island.

This began as a seed, and blossomed into a field of flowers so quickly. This is mahasanga at its best. People who had never heard the word bodhisattva, acted in bodhisattva ways.

Mimi, Adam and Serina Khaldi; safe after a harrowing flight from Syria.

Mimi, Adam and Serina Khaldi; safe after a harrowing flight from Syria.

While we found a supportive home for the family to live in for a year, and the resources were ample to support them for that amount of time, part of the challenge has been how to help them move into long-term self-sufficiency.

The family feels safe on Salt Spring, but I believe that Samer’s only working in retail won’t generate enough revenue to support all five of them.

Given his background a new career as a paralegal might make sense, which will require online training over several years. We’re still in that discussion.

Now I want to jump to the Buddhadharma. Most readers will have heard of the Bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokitesvara, whose name became Guan Yin when Buddhism traveled to China; and Kannon, when it entered Japan. 

A reasonable translation of the name Avalokitesvara is “perceive world sound.” This bodhisattva hears the cries of the world, and has taken a vow to free all suffering beings.

In fact, in order to help people understand the inherent relationship between perceiving and going into action to help relieve such suffering, one version of Avalokitesvara endows the bodhisattva with one thousand hands, and places an eye in the palm of each hand.

I feel the implications of this embodiment of compassion are clear, because the eye that perceives suffering is already in a hand ready to go to work.

In Zen, there is a famous koan that asks, “How does the bodhisattva use so many hands and eyes?” Clearly, in these pages we can’t investigate that koan in all of its wonderful manifestations, but I am so grateful that the community on Salt Spring is providing one answer at this very time.