One blustery winter day in 2016, 90-year-old Sylvia Parker drove to Walmart to buy groceries. A few blocks shy of her destination, she stopped to wait for a red light to change, never suspecting that her own life was about to change.
Lethbridge had recently opened its arms to more than 400 Syrian refugees who arrived shaken and shell-shocked, in dire need of every kind of help. They had left lives they knew and family members they loved to find hope, freedom, and peace. Knowing that it takes tremendous courage to come to a new country and build a new life, Immigrant Services supported the refugees along the way. Many local citizens also reached out, offering friendship and tangible help to the newcomers who found the language barrier, culture, food, and even the climate overwhelming.
As Sylvia sat at the stop light, she spotted a young Syrian couple attempting to make their way through the slippery, snowy slush along the shoulder of the road. The husband (Abdul) carried their two-year-old daughter (Rafif) in his arms. The wife (Alaa) was obviously pregnant.
An offer of help
Without hesitating, Sylvia pulled over and motioned them into her car. “We couldn’t speak to each other because they spoke only Arabic and I spoke only English,” she recalls, “but that didn’t matter. In a crisis, sign language works!” The couple showed me the 40-dollar food voucher given them by Immigrant Services, and I realized that they were headed to Walmart to buy food.
That day, with Sylvia’s help, Alaa and Abdul Masini gathered the basics. When their voucher didn’t quite cover the cost, Sylvia made up the difference. When she offered the family a ride home, they gratefully accepted. “I sensed that this family was in need of ongoing help, and I knew that the Lord had placed them in my path that day and called on me to give them that help,” Sylvia says.
The trip to Walmart was just the beginning as Sylvia took on the task of helping the young Syrian family settle in Lethbridge. For several months, sign language and Google Translate were their only means of communicating, but they forged on, and in the process became devoted friends. Sylvia drove Alaa and Abdul to countless appointments, showed up with groceries when their cupboards were bare, checked in on them regularly, encouraged Abdul to seek and find employment, and stressed the necessity of learning English to both Abdul and Alaa.
The offer of help was never withdrawn
Soon Sylvia was helping Alaa and Abdul prepare for the birth of their baby, a little boy who would be named Abdulhamid. Realizing that they had no supplies for the imminent birth and no money to purchase them, Sylvia asked me, the ward Relief Society president, to approach the sisters and ask for gently used baby clothes and much needed supplies. Baby items poured in; so many boxes of them that Sylvia asked me to help deliver them. I agreed, and immediately fell in love with the Masini family. Our friendship grew, and soon Sylvia and I were coordinating our efforts to serve them.
When the baby was born, his oxygen levels were low, so he had to stay in the hospital for an extended period. Alaa, frantic with worry, was grateful when we went to the hospital to visit, reassure, and comfort.
There were many challenges as the Masinis adapted to life in Canada. At times, things were tough; very tough. In those early days they often expressed frustration, anger, and a determination to return to their homeland despite the war and atrocities raging there. The obstacles they faced seemed insurmountable.
When feelings of despair engulfed them, Sylvia reminded the couple of the devastation and suffering they had left behind and of the promising future ahead if they would only persevere. She was a plucky bundle of unflinching faith, no-nonsense advice, and tangible help. Her steady “with-God’s-help-you-can-do-this” voice was just what Alaa and Abdul needed.
Sylvia’s trust in the Lord came from experience. When her marriage ended, she prayed fervently for direction. Upon receiving it, she acted. She enrolled in university, earned a degree in social work, and pursued career opportunities that allowed her to provide for her 11 children, firmly believing that with God, all things are possible; a conviction she continually shared with Alaa and Abdul. For Sylvia, throwing in the towel and returning to a war-torn world was not a viable option, and she made that very clear to them.
There is a large Syrian community here, so the family continues to celebrate their heritage while embracing their newfound Canadian culture. They eat delicious Syrian cuisine one night then hop in the car and head to MacDonald’s the next, extremely grateful for the hope, freedom, and peace they have found here.
The Masini family has now lived in Lethbridge for six years and are proud to be full-fledged Canadian citizens. Alaa is fluent in English. Abdul works hard and is gainfully employed. Of course, challenges come, but the Masinis tackle them with growing confidence, firmly focused on their future. Rafif and Abdulhamid are both happy, bright students, and two years ago, a beautiful little daughter, Elian, joined the family.
One person can make a difference
Sylvia and I continue to be Alaa and Abdul’s close friends. On Sylvia’s 95th birthday, Alaa and I surprised this feisty, mentally sharp friend with a visit. She was thrilled to see us. During our visit, I stood aside, taking in all the joy as Alaa embraced Sylvia, the dynamic little woman who had loved, served, encouraged, and when necessary been very firm and very real with her.
“Do you believe in God?” Sylvia asked, looking directly into Alaa’s eyes as we prepared to leave.
“Yes!” Alaa replied.
“Well, God led me to you,” Sylvia responded, “and He is watching over you every day. I pray for you. I love you, Alaa.”
“And I love you,” was Alaa’s heartfelt response. “You were the first Canadian who reached out to me, and you never let go.”