Part 1 of Sam & Saima: How Love & Hope Inspired Calgarians to Welcome Hundreds of Syrian Refugees
If you live in Calgary, then you have probably heard of Sam Nammoura. Whether on social media, TV or radio interviews, Sam has been featured on numerous media outlets to put the spotlight on the important national issue of Syrian refugees in Canada. A cause close to his heart, Sam is dedicated to putting out calls to action in order to provide his fellow Syrian countrymen and women with basic life needs that otherwise would have been difficult to meet given the tight government funding.
I first met Sam at a Youth Mentorship Conference back in November 2015. I remember he came up to me after my talk and introduced himself with genuine kindness and sincerity. We had a nice conversation and he gave me his card. It was when we became facebook friends that I got to know that this humble man was truly a force to be reckoned with.
Sam was born, raised and university educated as an electronics engineer in Damascus, Syria. He moved to the United States in 1993 and then to Calgary, where he started a business in security alarms. His business quickly grew to include branches across Alberta. In 2010, he took an early retirement to spend more time in Syria. A year later, Sam witnessed the brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters by the Syrian regime.
As the situation in Syria escalated, Sam had to return to Canada. The atrocities in Syria continued to unfold while the international community kept quiet. The defining moment that sparked an international outcry occurred when the story of a young Syrian child, Alan Kurdi drowned with 12 other people attempting to reach Greece, made headlines. This event created a ripple effect throughout North America and Europe. People were outraged and desperately wanted to help in anyway. Sam was one of those people. Shortly after this tragedy, he attended a candlelight vigil organized by Saima Jamal in honor of the young boy who drowned off the shores of Europe. Sam attended the vigil prepared with massive posters protesting against the war in Syria and showing solidarity with the Syrian people. It was on this fateful day in September 2015, that Sam met Saima.
Sam and Saima both shared in the frustration and anger over the worsening situation in Syria. More pressing, was the issue of the Syrians who actually made it to Canada but lived in very poor housing conditions. One day Sam was reached out to by a community member who wanted Sam to visit a Syrian family, to provide comfort and support. Sam happily went to visit but was shocked at what he saw. The family had the bare minimum, sitting on broken couches and sleeping on hard mattresses. He further described how even the cutlery was rationed; 5 spoons and 5 knives per family…etc. Sam explained that the government gives social work agencies only $1000 to furnish an entire house and everyone involved was doing the best they could with the little funds available.
Sam visited a second family soon after. The father had lung cancer and again, they were living in a similar and dire situation. Sam recalls the father saying all he wanted was a comfortable mattress because he would go to sleep at night and wake up with back pain in the morning.
It was at this moment that Sam realized that he would be more useful in directing his energy to help Syrians in Canada. Sam recalls thinking “I might as well look after the Syrians who are here”.
Syrian Refugee Support Group is Born
He immediately went home and made a facebook post explaining what he had seen and the situation of the two Syrian families he had visited. He asked for donations of mattresses and other household items that he noticed were missing from the families home. People responded almost instantly.
Within three hours people came forward with donations. Sam recalls “it was as if a storm hit the city, people were asking me where to bring me the items and I would say take it directly to the family. This allowed the donors to meet and engage with the Syrian families. Canadians wanted an opportunity to share and show their compassion. Everyone was so happy, it was so beautiful”.
Sam purposely did not want to become the middle man between Calgarians and newcomers. Instead, he positioned SRSG to connect people and enable them to meet and share in the joy. One donor, Sam mentions, even bought a brand new $2600 mattress for the cancer patient whose back hurt, saying if he had an expensive mattress than he would want to donate a similar value mattress for his Syrian neighbor. Sam started to visit more and more Syrian families and make a list of what they needed and share it on social media. Each time, Calgary responded in a big way. People began donating sofas, TVs, cars, anything and everything. By this point, Sam and Saima along with a growing number of dedicated and loyal volunteers had created the Syrian Refugee Support Group (SRSG). This initiative was in a direct response to the immediate and anticipated needs of the new Syrian families. Sam quickly created a website and facebook page to raise awareness and communicate directly with the community. The Syrian Refugee Support Group Calgary has become a citizen’s action coalition of volunteers to which Sam adds “The political environment was right, Harper did very little to support the Syrian cause. This is a human issue, a Canada issue, a blue hat issue”.
At this point, having served over dozens of Syrian families, the SRSG was running out of space in their rented container to store the overflow of household goods and supplies that had been donated. “We received so many diaper and baby supply donations that we had to tell people no more” Sam says. As fate may have it, a gracious member of the Calgary community donated their 5000 square foot warehouse to SRSG so that they may store their donated goods. The SRSG used the cinderblock warehouse for over 4 months and it became the heart of the SRSG as it buzzed with the energy of hopeful refugees and compassionate volunteers. In the warehouse, newcomers came to pick up furniture and clothing but left with much more. Sam describes the warehouse by saying ” it was a community center, a cafe, a home, a meeting spot and a group therapy session, it was much much more than just warehouse”. SRSG now includes over nineteen hundred community members. Volunteers worked relentlessly to ease the transition for new Syrians in Canada. Their work has made Calgary the most welcoming place for refugees and one of the most generous. SRSG received substantial cash donations, ranging from $1000 to $7000 from which they bought a van and gift cards to distribute among newcomers.
The work of the SRSG appears to have been life changing for everyone involved. It has helped Syrians and Canadians alike realize how blessed and fortunate they are. Sam shares that “When Syrians thank me, I would actually say no, thank you. Your coming to Canada has blessed me and shown me what Canada truly is”.
However, it was not always smooth sailing for SRSG. Sam remembers having had the greatest difficulty and push back working with religious organizations. Some members of the community even questioned his motives by accusing him of “wanting to run for political office, stealing donations, and doing it for fame and glory”.
Sam responded to these allegations by telling me that “when you truly believe with all your heart and you are not doing it for any personal gain or hidden agenda, then you don’t care what anybody says. You become like a laser beam.”
What makes SRSG successful?
Sam believes that everyone who did something “as small as like a post or write a comment on facebook” is part of the SRSG social movement. He considers everyone who contributed in anyway to be a supporter of the cause and it cannot boil down to just one man or woman but the collective effort from everyone in Calgary. He adds that “it is very important to recognize all the volunteers and to acknowledge that even the smallest contributions deserve to be highlighted and appreciated”.
Social media also played a huge part in spreading the message and putting out calls for donations. When asked how he did it he shared by saying “I used all my techniques in business, in marketing and networking to build the SRSG. You always have to be creative in findings solutions”.
Sam also credits a lot of the SRSG success to his partner Saima by saying “60% of SRSG was built on Saima Jamal. She is innocent but strong, very genuine, very good speaker, really believed in the cause”.
As for his hopes for the future and for the Syrian families, Sam says “I want them to become great Canadians, by creating that support , help and welcome, we planted a seed, especially for the kids. Without the help of all the volunteers and supporters this group would literally go nowhere”
To date, SRSG has been running for over 13 months. They are working out of a virtual warehouse and currently focusing on 5 housing projects. So far, SRSG has worked with the government, different organizations and private sponsors to help bring Syrians to Canada and ensure they receive financial support and mentorship. They also provide practical help to integrate and settle the refugees. This includes airport welcomes, translation services, employers and delivery services for donated household items. In addition, SRSG conducts home visits for emotional support and driving assistance for appointments. Although things have quieted down significantly, the bonds that have been created as a result of the hard work and pure intentions of almost two thousand people, has solidified a network of volunteers. So much so that whenever there is a call to action, it is always met with a response.
“I want them to become great Canadians, by creating that support , help and welcome, we planted a seed, especially for the kids. Without the help of all the volunteers and supporters this group would literally go nowhere”- Sam Nammoura