Take a look at some of the wonderful artwork available to Art from the Heart ticket holders. Check our events page for details. Tickets are still available at Scotiabank in Hubbards and Tantallon.
Four years ago this past Sunday I flew from Damascus to Aleppo in Northern Syria for the Remembrance Service at the Commonwealth Cemetery there. I flew because the roads were deemed no longer safe to drive… and the Syrian authorities were restricting travel for some diplomats…. particularly those representing countries with an interest in human rights and not especially friendly to the Assad government. The British Ambassador and I (who shared this distinction) travelled up together and were subjected to a good deal of attention from the security forces at the airports, otherwise it was a solemn but uneventful day.
I did not know that this would be my last trip to Aleppo… an ancient and wonderful city which I had often visited. A few days later on the 11th of November we observed the Day of Remembrance in the beautiful Commonwealth Cemetery in Damascus… surrounded by hundreds of acres of cactus groves planted over a century ago.
In both locations, the services were brief and dignified, and all who spoke, Christian and Muslim alike, conveyed messages of peace and prayed that the troubles, then in their 7th month in Syria, would soon come to an end.
Now, four years later, Aleppo is in ruins. Like other cities in Syria it has suffered heavily from the regime’s use of barrel bombs dropped from helicopters against its own people and the civilian losses have been horrible.
Today, the city centre of Damascus itself, the oldest continually inhabited capital on Earth, has by all accounts remained relatively unaffected… but it is the keep within the castle walls… kept secure while all around is under siege and burning. The Damascus suburbs are shattered, the cactus fields have now been bulldozed and while the Assads remain firmly in control of the capital, they are in tenuous control of only some 20% of the rest of the country.
Before the unrest began in early March 2011 my family and I had travelled throughout the country. We came to know it well and to love the Syrian people. I have never met more welcoming or gracious people than in Syria, nor have I experienced a greater demonstration of co-existence and mutual tolerance than I saw in our early years in that country. Syrians are wonderful people with a legacy of terrible government. They have long deserved better.
History is everywhere in Syria especially that of the three great monotheistic religions.
There used to be a thriving Jewish population in Syria…. although the vast majority left in the 1970s, I have seen Jewish houses abandoned but still protected after 40 years.
Syria has a major place in our Christian heritage; about 10% of the population of 22 million was Christian until the civil war; Saul of Tarsus – later Paul the Apostle and Saint Paul was converted on the road to Damascus and the street called straight where he walked is still there; we heard the Lord’s Prayer recited in Aramaic, the language of Christ, in a tiny church 1500 years old; and we met extraordinary and courageous people who practiced the Christian faith and brought good to the country… some of whom have since been murdered.
Syria is of course a Muslim country, with about 90% of the population being followers of Islam. Before the civil war there was peace between Shia and Sunni in Syria – rare in many corners of the Muslim world. There was also a very comfortable and easy relationship between Christian and Muslim, and the closeness of the two religions was more apparent in Syria than anywhere I have ever seen. The great Umayeed Mosque of Damascus, one of the most sacred sites in Islam, has 3 minarets one of which is the Jesus tower. The head of John the Baptist is by tradition reverently housed in the Great Mosque as a sacred relic. Christian visitors were genuinely welcome in the Great Mosque and always found peace and comfort there… and I sometimes wondered if Muslim visitors would be as graciously received in the great cathedrals of Christianity.
Today, while the Great Mosque still stands, the peace and harmony it reflected so perfectly is now in tatters.
Apart from its religious heritage, Syria is an ancient land in ways that we as a new country can hardly comprehend. People rarely forget … or forgive… anything.
There are sites where bronze age society flourished, and I have seen the ruins of cities dating back 5,000 years, walked in silence in the ruined Roman cities of Apameya and Palmyra, and approached the great crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers through valleys filled with spring wildflowers and gazed with awe at it, still intact after a thousand years.
Now, ISIS has plundered artifacts from Apameya and is destroying Palmyra, Krak has been bombed by the regime….and where will it end?
Where indeed. The Syria we knew had a population of 22 million in an area about 3 times the size of Nova Scotia. Today over 4 million have left the country, and another 7 million are internally displaced…. half the population. Over 250,000 are dead … and who knows how many are missing or imprisoned.
I need not dwell on the brutality of the regime and of its many opponents or the history of the civil war. Let me just say that it was not outside agitators who were responsible at the beginning of the unrest as the Assads claimed; they came later.
In the early stages ordinary Syrian people asked their own government for justice and reform through peaceful protest. They were met with violence, which is what the Assad regime understands, and they eventually responded with violence.
The Assad regime has no interest in the well being of the people of Syria; their only goal is to stay in power. Had it not been for the financial, military and political support of Russia and Iran, the regime would have collapsed two or three years ago. But it has been propped up and strengthened and funded, and a complex and horrible civil war has been sustained: the regime and its supporters are now pitted against scores of opposition groups, many of which fight each other; Sunnis now fight with Shia; Jihadists fight everyone, and foreign powers play out their own interests by proxy through groups they fund and support.
Where will this lead and how will it end? I do not know. The recent Vienna talks were a step in the right direction, but only a step, after 4 years. I am very guarded in my outlook for a ceasefire any time in the near future… unless Russia, Iran and the regional states become serious about helping end the bloodshed. Only pressure from them can achieve this, and it may still be years in coming.
So where does this leave the people of Syria, who are caught in the midst of it all … and what does it mean for the people of Canada and of Nova Scotia ?
The plight of the Syrian refugees is very serious. There are over 2 million in Turkey, a million in Lebanon (pop of 4 million) and 600 thousand in Jordan. These are good people, ordinary people, who are in great need.
Most of them simply want the fighting to stop so they can return home and start to rebuild their lives. They do not want to leave. Winter is arriving and the UN and NGOs who are helping the refugees are seriously underfunded.
Canada and the rest of the international community need to fix this and to generously fund the humanitarian relief efforts… and extend bilateral assistance to the countries which are bearing this burden. I am greatly encouraged by the government’s recent announcements in this area.
There are of course many refugees who do want to leave, and Canada, together with the rest of the international community, must open our doors and make them welcome.
What the Bay Project is doing to sponsor Syrian refugee families is wonderful, and a great example for other communities. We all need to open our hearts and help make it possible for more new families to come to Canada. Like many who watched the swearing in of the new federal cabinet last Wednesday I was struck by our new Minister of Democratic Institutions, Maryam Monsef, who herself came to Canada from Afghanistan in 1996 as a refugee of 11. I have heard her speak before, and she does so with an eloquence and dignity and pride as a Canadian that makes me stand a little taller and think what a country we have where this is possible… and what richness new Canadians can bring to this land.
On this Remembrance Day as we reflect on the sacrifices of those who fought for Canada in the past, perhaps we might also consider how truly we can honour them by welcoming the innocent victims of another war… and helping them find peace and a new life in the blessed country which our forbears have bequeathed to us …. and to help us all build a better Canada.
Nova Scotia resident Glenn Davidson is the former Canadian Ambassador to Syria, and a great friend of the Bay Refugee Project.
We are thrilled to announce that we have raised about $22,000 to date. Thanks to all those who have donated funds, volunteered at our Community Supper, and taken the time to make a difference.
We have two more great events coming up - details will be available soon on the events page.
I was a "refugee", once. In the spring of 2011, I was living with my husband and three children in Damascus, Syria. Since 2009, I had been the head of the political section in the Canadian Embassy. We lived in a comfortable neighbourhood a few blocks south of downtown, filled with low-rises, small shops, bordering a cactus field and the highway to Lebanon. I spent my days reporting on the political situation in Syria - covering everything from the pervasive drought in the northeast, the First Lady's attempts to open a children's museum, and the trials of political dissidents. Our daughter was born on a scorching hot night at the venerable French Hospital, while the older children went to school and took swimming lessons. It was home, despite all the differences between Damascus and Hubbards, Nova Scotia.
That spring, there were tremors everywhere. The fall of the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes could be felt reverberating through society like a distant sonic boom. There were reports of protests, and I witnessed some myself, unprecedented and risky. There were pro-government rallies too, and angry words between friends. Reports of torture and disappearances. Everyone was constantly uneasy, but some people tasted hope. One woman activist I knew told me that she was going door-to-door on Fridays, the day of rest, to encourage other women to come out to protest the government crackdown. "There will never be another first time to taste freedom, my sisters", she would say. Soon after, her colleague and mentor in her movement was assassinated, and hope turned to fear.
One weekend in April, during a visit by my mother-in-law, the family went south across the border to visit some sites in Jordan. At the last minute, I stayed behind to keep up with the increasingly frantic pace of work; we were all anxious about the separation - things were happening in the south, and by the time they came back to Damascus there were checkpoints and nervous young men with guns all along the roads, reports of incidents. My Ambassador asked me to send my mother-in-law home to Canada, and I knew families and dependents would be next. The call was made a few days later to return all dependents home to Canada for their safety. I helped my husband pack himself and our kids. I was grateful that my nine-month old daughter had recently finished breastfeeding.
They were gone on Mothers' Day. I threw myself into work and stayed out late, hoping to fall dead asleep in the empty house. My husband made a small life, with the help of family and friends and colleagues, in a furnished hotel apartment in Ottawa. Our oldest had trouble in school; the middle guy whined about everything; the baby took her first steps. My husband's employer couldn't figure out what to do with him - he should be reporting to work, but how? When we were reunited a few months later, it took us weeks to make sense again as a family. I thought constantly about the colleagues we left behind. We went onto a new assignment in Jordan, thanks to an incredible colleague who stepped in to my position so I could be reunited with my family. Life slowly returned to normal.
I don't tell this story for sympathy, but for contrast. If you can imagine that it might have been hard for our family to go through this experience, imagine life for a true refugee. We never had to choose between bombardment or fleeing with nothing. We never lived in a camp. We didn't spend our life savings. We had uninterrupted education and health care for our children. We got our salary and were supported by our employers. We didn't leave half our family behind. We weren't conscripted into an army and asked to fire on our countrymen. We didn't witness the destruction of our family home or the death of a loved one. We weren't humiliated by the change in our circumstances. We weren't travelling injured. We didn't risk rape or kidnapping. We got to take all our possessions. We didn't have to hide. We had a passport and documentation. We knew, mostly, what the future held.
Nobody questioned whether we had the right to a safe place to live. We were sure that we had a home to return to. Those simple realities made us some of the luckiest people on earth.
Emily King is the Chair of The Bay Refugee Project. Originally from Hubbards, Nova Scotia, Emily has worked for the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development since 2001 and is currently on posting at the Atlantic regional office. She has returned to living in Hubbards with her husband and three children, and is very excited to contribute to the resettlement of refugees in her community. Views expressed herein are her own.
We have started selling tickets for our Stay & Dine Raffle. We have four amazing prizes to give away. We will continue to sell tickets until the draw takes place on Saturday, December 12th at The Hubbards Barn during the 2nd Christmas Market.
Tickets are $5 each or 5 tickets for $20. Tickets are available through Bay Refugee Project board and committee members and at fundraising functions. Stay tuned for more locations where you can pick up your tickets in the community.
First prize - Stay & Dine Halifax ($600 value)
Two nights accommodation at the Harbourfront Marriot, dinner for 2 at Harbourstone Grill and dinner for 2 at Edna Restaurant.
Second prize - Stay & Dine Hubbards ($380 value)
One night accommodation at Rosewood Cottages in Hubbards, catered meal delivered to your cottage by Chef Larry Fogg at St. Lawrence Kitchen and 4 rounds of 9 holes of golf at Aspotogan Ridge Golf Course (season opens June 2016).
Third prize - Stay & Dine Peggy's Cove ($250 value)
One night accommodation at Oceanstone Resort and dinner for two at Rhubarb Restaurant.
Fourth Prize - Stay & Dine Lunenburg ($200 value)
One night accommodation at Spinnaker Inn and dinner for two at Saltshaker Deli.
The Bay Refugee Project Fundraising Committee has been hard at work over the last six weeks. This group of more than a dozen dedicated community members has been brainstorming and planning and reaching out. We have asked - and boy, have we received! We have all been overwhelmed by the willingness of family, friends, neighbours and businesses to help out with this project.
All of that effort has started to pay off. We held our first fundraising event at the Shore Club in Hubbards on Friday night. Tickets for the Community Supper sold out quickly and the event was a great success. Almost all of the food for the supper was donated and all of the labour was offered in kind. A delicious meal was served and it was followed by some wonderful musical entertainment. We sold tickets on an enormous raffle bag filled with items that were generously donated by the members of Hubbards Area Business Association. A big thanks goes out to all those who donated their time, effort and expertise to this event.
We raised $9,000 towards the Bay Refugee Project at the Community Supper through event ticket sales, raffle ticket sales, auction items and cash donations.
Things got really exciting when a couple attending the supper offered to make a $500 donation if someone was willing to step up and match it. That happened quickly and the competition continued as an additional pledge was made for a contribution of $750 if it could be matched. We did not find a contributor to match it that night, so the pledge still stands. Is anyone out there willing to match this anonymous $750 pledge? If you have been waiting for the perfect opportunity to make a donation, why not contact us and match that pledge?
Susy MacGillivray calls Hubbards home, and heads up the fundraising committee for the Bay Refuge Project.