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Victoria Jews, Christians hope to help Muslim Syrian refugees find safe haven

Downtown synagogue, Lutheran church need to raise $15,000 more by Oct. 31
From left, Sherry Coughlin, Rabbi Harry Brechner, Robert Oppenheimer and Rev. Lyndon Sayers share a laugh together at Congregation Emanu-El synagogue on Blanshard Street. Oppenheimer, whose father and aunt originally came to Canada as refugees from Nazi Germany, was approached about sponsoring the Syrian refugee family by his cousin in the U.S. who knew their relatives. (Courtesy of Robert Oppenheimer)

Through a sponsorship that defies interfaith barriers, a Victoria synagogue and church hope to welcome to the community a Muslim refugee family that previously fled danger and destruction in Syria.

Robert Oppenheimer, Heshi Olson and Rabbi Harry Brechner from the Congregation Emanu-El synagogue, Sherry Coughlin and Rev. Lyndon Sayers of Lutheran Church of the Cross and about 15 others from the two communities have raised thousands of dollars to sponsor the group of six, which includes four kids from eight months to seven years old.

“We’re very happy in Canada to be able to help a family like this,” said committee chair Oppenheimer, noting the family cannot be identified out of fears of further endangering them. “The neighbourhood they were living in in Syria was being shelled.”

Not only was their apartment building bombarded, their car was blown up and the father targeted. They initially relocated to Southeast Asia, where they scraped by for several years, but as UNHCR-registered refugees, the family is now looking to move to Canada.

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The synagogue’s Refugee Family Project aims to support the family’s settlement in Victoria, through the Inter-cultural Association of Greater Victoria, with funding to cover their expenses for the first year.

“This part of the sponsorship is really giving them some hope,” Oppenheimer said.

The project has already raised $25,000, but Oppenheimer stressed another $15,000 is needed to hit the federally set goal and the clock is ticking. “For a family of this size, we have to raise $40,000 by the end of October.”

Oppenheimer’s father and aunt came to Canada as refugees from Nazi Germany, so the drive to help people fleeing conflict comes naturally.

The process began in May 2021, when his cousin in the U.S. approached him about Syrian friends who’d tried unsuccessfully to sponsor relatives.

Both Congregation Emanu-El and the Lutheran Church actively combat prejudice against Muslims in particular and aim to collaborate as Jews and Christians to assist the family.

“The opportunity to join with our Jewish neighbours to support the sponsorship of a Muslim family is a witness to multifaith cooperation and shared work that continues to grow in Victoria,” Rev. Lyle McKenzie of Lutheran Church said in a release.

It helps that the two congregations already have friendly relations; Oppenheimer has known Sayers, who’s also good friends with Brechner, for years. And it’s not the first time either group has worked to bring people abroad to safety.

“Between our two congregations, we have a number of people who have experience working with refugees,” Oppenheimer said, adding, “there are dozens of sponsorship groups in Victoria that’ve helped refugee groups over the years.”

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If the fundraising does not reach $40,000, they’ll lose the sponsorship spot for this year and it will go to other refugees. With armed conflict also raging in countries like Ukraine and Afghanistan, Oppenheimer recognized people may feel torn over where to direct their attention and support.

“It can be overwhelming for people, the number of crises that are going on right now.”

Still, the work and funds people have contributed so far speak volumes about their compassion and generosity, he said. “On a personal level, it’s really been very important to me how invested people in the community are in this.”

He hopes more people come to recognize Victoria as a safe haven for refugees.

“I find it poignant that when we strip away politics and worldviews that are based on fear, we realize that Syrians, Muslims, and Arabs are not our enemy but in fact our siblings,” Brechner said in a release, adding that it likely relieves and supports the family to know people in Western Canada are working to bring them somewhere else they can call home.

Email or visit to donate or help. Alternatively, donations made through the Inter-cultural Association of Greater Victoria should include “CG-173-22” in the comment box.


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