Health and safety regulations may have kept them physically distant, but students and staff at Waterloo Collegiate Institute (WCI) came together in support of reuniting families with the Walk for Hope. They walked the 9,731 km distance from WCI to Syria in an effort to raise the money needed to sponsor the reunification of a refugee family. The parents and three daughters are safe in Canada, but two of their brothers are in dangerous conditions overseas.
Incredibly, they quickly reached and surpassed their distance and fundraising goals. As of Friday, November 13, they had walked more than 9,731 km and raised more than $15,637.05.
Lynn Schulze is the English as a Second Language (ESL) and English Language Development (ELD) Department Head at WCI, and played an instrumental role in beginning the effort to support the reunification of this family. Schulze’s involvement began as part of her work with Crossing Borders, a group of newcomer and Canadian-born students and alumni of WCI who raise awareness about newcomer issues and break down barriers between people. When Schulze first heard the story of the family divided, she was compelled to find a way to help.
Schulze described hearing the family’s story of their harrowing journey out of Syria, in an effort to find safety, and the unimaginable choice that faced them when only part of their family was offered the chance to come to Canada six years ago. “The parents had to make a gut-wrenching decision to leave behind three members of their family,” said Schulze. “The right thing is to help.”
Previous fundraising efforts began in March 2020, with Art for Hope and Portraits for Hope helping to raise money through the sale of art and portrait photography. The current effort aimed to raise an additional $15,000 towards the total $35,000 needed to sponsor the brothers for their first year in Canada.
With Walk for Hope, Schulze reached out to her colleague Kerri Jilesen, the leadership teacher at WCI for help. Jilesen’s four student leadership classes jumped at the opportunity and are all involved in running the initiative. They’ve been busy collecting pledge packages, distributing t-shirts and helping students and staff track the kilometres they’ve walked.
The students landed on a goal of walking the distance from WCI to Syria as a way of representing the scale of the journey this family has already undertaken, and the journey they hope to help the remaining brothers complete. Jilesen explained that they began by asking themselves “how could we make it representative of what this family went through?” To keep track of the total distance they have travelled, those participating in the Walk for Hope used apps to track their daily distances and submitted them to the organizers for a grand total.
Mona Alatia is a fifth year student at WCI, and is no stranger to the dangerous journey involved with coming to Canada as a refugee. Approximately 10 years ago, Alatia’s family fled war in Syria, making their way to Jordan before coming to Canada. She understands the pain of having to leave loved ones behind, as much of her extended family remains in precarious conditions.
“I know how hard it feels to leave people behind,” said Alatia. “I really just want to help this family to come together.”
“These students have been fantastic,” said Jilesen. “They go above and beyond every time.”
Alatia spoke of her own personal pain, her strong voice wavering only momentarily as she described losing cherished members of her family who are still in Syria.
“It’s unfortunate for us that we cannot help them there,” said Alatia. “They mean a lot to me.”
As a member of the student leadership class, Alatia knew she had to get involved to help support Walk for Hope. Seeing so many of her peers and educators band together to support a family who has similar experiences to her own, Alatia explained, has been truly inspiring.
Sophia Malo, a Grade 12 student at WCI who is also in the student leadership class, spoke about the added benefits of Walk for Hope, beyond helping to reunite a family. In a time when staff and students remain at a distance because of COVID, the event offered a chance for the entire WCI community to come together and work towards a shared goal, with collective effort.
“It really means a lot to see our whole school come together for such a good cause,” said Malo.
Will Aurini, a classmate of Malo and Alatia’s, echoed this sentiment. He noted that it’s been difficult to bring the whole school together while respecting COVID-related restrictions. Aurini explained that, as a school with an ESL population of around 30%, the Walk for Hope was a great way to bring everyone together in support of members of their own community.
For a school that has a history of supporting refugee families and newcomer students, Schulze explains that seeing the staff and students come together in support of Walk for Hope, is no surprise to her.
“We’re just motivated to do the right thing in a world that isn’t always the safest, happiest place,” said Schulze. “We like to share our privilege and do anything we can to make our newcomer students feel important and connected.”