Discovering Westport: a small community with a big heart

Guest post by Rami Sarakbi, Canadian Red Cross Program Coordinator for the Respect Education program in Western Canada. Here is a previous post, including video, about his experiences assisting refugees in Germany.

End of mission is a time of deep reflection and slow adjustment. When I was deployed to Germany as a Canadian Red Cross delegate, my life changed drastically. Working as an interpreter in a German Red Cross transit camp for refugees, I experienced a complete shift in lifestyle. I went from a quiet 9-5 to non-stop 12 hour shifts, welcoming a thousand refugees every night. I adjusted quickly because the rapid pace of response left no room for easing in. When the end of my mission came, I braced myself for another major life change: going back to normal.

Part of my recovery process was to spend a week with my family in Ottawa before returning home to Vancouver. After encountering so many heartbreaking stories of families separated and going through unimaginable struggles, I felt I needed to spend some time with my own family to begin my return to regular life.

End of mission is also a time where friends, family and colleagues are eager to hear about your experience. When asked, I find certain stories come to mind time and time again: the stories that had the biggest impact on me among the thousands of impactful stories. The surprising thing is that one of these stories did not occur during my deployment at all, but rather after I got back.

During my recovery week in Ottawa, I was invited to attend a fundraiser in the town of Westport, Ontario, a small Eastern Ontario community of some 700 people who had set out to raise over $40,000 for the Red Cross' projects in Syria. The event was called “Double double for Syria” and it started with the Westport Free Methodist Church offering to match up to $5000 of what the community could raise for Syria. That would be the first “double” and then, through the government matching program, the total amount would be doubled again. Local businesses joined in on the action with Kudrinko’s country grocery kick-starting the fund through a $1,000 contribution. Then, a generous local resident felt moved by the initiative, and added another $10,000 to the matching fund.

When I arrived at the venue, a cozy inn, it was completely full with local residents who had come out to show their support. A silent auction was running where nearly every local business had donated an item for the active bidders. I was greeted warmly by the event organizer, Pastor Paul Millar of the Westport Free Methodist Church. I immediately felt welcomed within this community.

A man standing by a Red Cross vanWhen I took the stage to share some of my experiences from Germany, I could feel a deep level of compassion and empathy emanating from the crowd. The attendees listened closely as I shared the story of a mother coming into our camp with tears in her eyes because she had been separated from her son along the way. I described how relieved she was when we finally were able to establish contact with him. I told the story of the three young children ages two to six who had been separated from their mother and were being cared for by their 20 year-old uncle. I described the joyous moment when we were able to reunite them with their mother the very next day. I spoke about an unaccompanied 15-year old boy who woke up one night shaking and crying in terror. He was hyperventilating and experiencing psychological trauma. I worked alongside our medical team to calm him down and make him feel safe.

After my presentation I met Neil Kudrinko, the owner of the town’s only grocery store. He told me about how he and Pastor Paul meet regularly over breakfast to discuss social justice issues. The fundraiser for refugees was the result of their shared commitment to caring for those in need.

I was also moved by Pastor Paul who paid me the ultimate compliment when he said that he hopes his sons will one day grow up to be like me. He also said that he wants his children to grow up in a community where these acts of charity are considered normal.

At the end of the night, the fundraiser was beyond a success. Westport managed to more than double the initial goal of $40,000 and raise an astounding $86,641.30. What a heartwarming example of what can be achieved when like-minded people cooperate to care for humanity. I am so grateful to have been able to witness it. The work that we do simply would not be possible without incredible people like Pastor Paul, Neil Kudrinko and every single person that attended and contributed to this event. I could not have picked a better way to spend some of my recovery time than amongst the kind-hearted community members of Westport.

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