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SponsorLand unfolds challenges and triumphs of PEC Syria

Challenges and triumphs of Prince Edward County’s first Syrian refugee family, and the many volunteers who brought them here, unfold in the feature documentary ‘SponsorLand’ during a special screening at Picton’s Regent Theatre before the TVO national broadcasts.

Directed by award-winning filmmaker Michèle Hozer, SponsorLand follows the day-to-day lives of the Al Jasem family – brought to Canada in the fall of 2015 by PEC Syria, a private sponsor group with 150 volunteers in Prince Edward County.

Inspired to act after witnessing the magnitude of the refugee crisis on a visit to Europe in 2015, Picton gallery owner Carlyn Moulton put out a call on Facebook and was overwhelmed by the response. At a standing-room-only community meeting in Bloomfield on Sept. 15, 2015, PEC Syria was formed, the applications to sponsor a family were made.

Just six weeks after their initial meeting PEC Syria welcomed Abdel Malek Al Jasem, his wife Sawsen, their 11 children and grandmother Hadji to start their new life – free of war, hopeful for safety.

“We have no idea of who is coming through the door,” said Moulton, waiting at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. “Suddenly there were all here…We didn’t know that they didn’t know where they were going… they were visibly concerned.”

Mom and dad – Abdel Malek and Sawsen – thought Toronto, the destination on their airline tickets, was to be their new home. But as the Toronto skyline fades behind them, Abdel Malek becomes increasingly agitated and anxious. Eldest son Slieman recalls “My dad was convinced something was going to happen to us. That they were going to kill us or something. He was so scared…”

The sponsors didn’t know the family was unaware they were being resettled in Picton – a nice and very white rural town of about 4,702 that’s known for its clean air and fine wine, but not for its lahm bajeen or kibbeh.

Abdel Malek, 49, and Sawsen, 37, escaped a civil war, lost everything, and with their 11 children, have instantly gone from the uncertain life of refugees to be members of an extended family made up of the sponsorship group headed by Moulton and her merry band of well-intentioned do-gooders

“It’s been very interesting as sponsors to be both responsible for them on the one hand, and to respect them as adults who were doing just fine before the war,” said Moulton.

Toronto based director Michèle Hozer moved to Picton for the better part of a year to embed herself in the community capturing rites of passage like school dances and driving lessons, family outings to the skating rink, the Santa Claus Parade and family birthdays.

She also witnessed the sponsors actively getting the family medical care after years of neglect, teaching the parents who ran a business in Syria how to function financially in Canada – banking, paying bills – learn a new language and counsel the eldest sons Slieman and Ramez on future educational and job options. The sponsors spend untold hours teaching the family all the rudimentary things residents here take for granted.

SponsorLand sheds light on thornier questions as well as the positive outcomes of the sponsor-refugee relationship.

And, the family keeps wondering why these Canadians are being so nice. What’s the catch?

On Jan. 29, 2017 after beginning to feel secure in their new home, the unthinkable happens with the brazen attack on a mosque in Québec City and suddenly there’s an anti-Muslim sentiment just down the highway.

Shocked and rattled, their belief in Canada as a secure haven where they can move on with their lives is suddenly challenged. And, there’s the subtle resentments. A PEC Syria member recalls a friend casually mentioning how he’s glad Slieman, the eldest son has found a job, but his own son has been out of work for months. And volunteer Debra McGrath wonders in the back of her mind how the first Muslim family members in Picton to wear the hijab will be received.

Slieman

Along the way, SponsorLand also asks whether the charming Slieman can let go of what he’s seen and who he’s left behind to pursue his own future while as eldest son, contribute to the family’s financial needs.

Then there’s Ramez, the younger brother who is full of optimism for, and excited to embrace, the future. They may only be a year apart in age but they’re worlds apart in their life experiences before Canada.

Sawsen

Can Sawsen, the matriarch whose lack of English belies her knowingness, be able to steer her own family’s future without interference?

SponsorLand is a thoughtful, intimate take on the dynamic between newcomers to Canada and their sponsors who commit money, emotional and sweat equity to support resettlement and the family who while grateful, wonder what they have to sacrifice to fit in.

SponsorLand is a Cutting Factory Production produced in association with TVO and the Canadian Media Fund. The world premiere broadcast is on TVO Wednesday, Nov. 15 at 9p.m. with repeat broadcasts on Saturday, Nov. 18 at 9p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 19 at 11p.m. SponsorLand is also available to screen on www.tvo.org beginning Thursday, Nov. 16. Special public screenings with questions and answers are being held in Toronto Wednesday, Nov. 8, at 7pm at the Isabel Bader Theatre and in Picton Friday, Nov. 10, at 7pm at the Regent Theatre.

Director Michèle Hozer has two films on the Oscar shortlist (Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould, Promise to The Dead: The Exile Journey of Ariel Dorfman). Her work is also Emmy-nominated (Promise to The Dead: The Exile Journey of Ariel Dorfman) and Gemini-winning (Genius Within). She has been working as a filmmaker and editor in Canada since 1987 and to date, has more than 50 documentaries that have received accolades from the world’s most prestigious film festivals, including the Sundance Film festival (Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Romeo Dallaire) and IDFA (West Wind The Vision of Tom Thompson) in Amsterdam. In 2015 she completed Sugar Coated, her first solo feature length documentary as director, editor, and producer. The doc was honoured with The Donald Brittain Award for Best Social and Political Documentary at the 2016 CSA’s and is available on Netflix.

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  1. Tom says:

    Thanks you for making this available !!

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