By Stuart Mann
On a Wednesday evening in late April, Bachir and Mahfouze Brimo and their four young daughters sat down to a dinner of lasanga and salad in a comfortable home in north Toronto. Joining them were their hosts, Heather Gilley and Peter Singer, and their translator, Rula Haman.
A few months earlier, this scene would have been unimaginable to the Brimos. Members of the one of the most persecuted groups in the Middle East, they were living in Lebanon, trying to make ends meet like millions of other refugees from Syria.
Their situation was precarious. Mr. Brimo’s job in a shoe factory and a monthly allowance from the United Nations office didn’t cover the cost of rent, food and other necessities. They had applied to the UN to come to Canada but were told that their chances were remote. They considered making the risky trip to Europe via Turkey and the Mediterranean Sea but did not have enough money to pay the smugglers.
To make matters more difficult and dangerous, they were members of the Yazidi community, a religious minority that has been targeted for extermination by ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Neither Muslim nor Christian, the Yazidis have often lived on the margins of society, with few rights.
While living in Lebanon, Mr. and Mrs. Brimo started going to All Saints Anglican Church in Beirut. They had a lifelong affinity with Christianity and were attracted by the kindness of the priest and congregation.
“Every time I went to church, I heard the people speaking about love and helping each other and giving without an expectation of return,” says Mr. Brimo through Ms. Haman, the translator. He attended church twice a week while Mrs. Brimo went four times a week.
They wanted to be baptized and become Christians, as did many other Yazidis, they say. But the hard times got worse. Unable to meet the rent, they moved out of the city, away from the church. They started to accumulate debt to buy food.
Mr. Brimo began to break down from the strain. One day after work, wracked by a severe headache and backache, he sat down alone and spoke to Jesus. “I’ll do anything you want, just please help my wife and daughters,” he said.
The next day, he received a telephone call at work. It was the UN office calling, asking if he would like to take his family to Canada. “I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “When I hung up, I prayed and thanked God.”
The family landed in Canada on April 7. “We are so lucky to be here – so lucky and grateful,” says Mrs. Brimo, overcome with emotion. “I asked Jesus every day to help and protect us. It’s only because of him that help came to change our lives.”
On May 15, the feast of Pentecost, their dream of being baptized came true. Mr. and Mrs. Brimo and their four daughters were baptized at St. Clement, Eglinton, the church that is sponsoring them and where they have become members.
“It was a once-in-a-generation experience,” says the Rev. Canon Jenny Andison, incumbent, in an interview after the service. “I may never have another experience like that in my priestly ministry. It was amazing.”
Canon Andison baptized each family member in English and Arabic, with the assistance of Ms. Haman. She says the words in the baptism rite took on greater meaning, given the family’s spiritual and physical journey. “In the service, we say, ‘Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?’ and this family has precisely fled from such evil. They attribute their journey to the power of God – the power of Jesus – who has recused them from war and death and slavery. When we say those words in church, we mean them primarily on a spiritual level, but this family means them on a physical level as well.”
The church was full and many broke into tears when three of the daughters sang a song thanking Jesus. Canon Andison’s own daughters, the same age as the Brimo girls, noted that they sang like angels. “I told our daughters that it was as if God had sent these angels to St. Clement’s in the form of refugees, and that’s so biblical – God comes to us in the poor and the lost, the broken and the refugees. Here are angels at St. Clement’s in the form of refugees.”
She says the Brimo family has been a great gift to the church. “When we sponsored them, we didn’t know any of this would happen. We assumed very happily that we would most likely be sponsoring a Muslim family, and the fact that it has turned into this journey has been completely unexpected and has become this incredible gift to our community, when we were intending to give them the gift.”
The Brimos, who lived with Ms. Gilley and Mr. Singer when they first arrived, have found an apartment nearby and their daughters are enrolled in school. Mr. and Mrs. Brimo, who speak Kurdish and Arabic, are taking English classes.
Ms. Gilley says providing a home for the family was a fulfilling experience. “To be honest, I was a bit nervous beforehand, because there was so much unknown. But it’s love in action, and if you have a lot of love and willingness to go outside your comfort zone, things usually work out. I believe that God looks after me and I follow Jesus and we’ve been taught to welcome the weary traveller. I feel very grateful for the opportunity to do this for this family.”
She says it’s been a positive experience for the parish as well. “It’s been great to see people from different walks of life working through all the challenges together. It hasn’t always been easy, but it’s wonderful to see a community wrap its arms around this family.”