Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies will never forget the January day she saw the Alshablis, a family fleeing war in Syria, walk through the doors of Edmonton International Airport.
Forty years ago, a group of sponsors—six families and a priest from Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Enoch, 25 km west of Edmonton— had met a five-year-old Tran-Davies as she walked through those same doors as a refugee from Vietnam. A Canadian girl handed her a doll.
“That doll to me symbolized the kindness and compassion of Canadians, and to this day I hold on to that doll,” said Tran-Davies.
As the Alshablis stepped off the plane in 2016, this time it was Tran-Davies, the former refugee turned sponsor, who was part of the group giving toys to Alaa and Somaya Alshabli’s children, Retaj, Rimas, and Mustafa.
An upcoming film produced by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) will feature Tran-Davies’ remarkable story of paying it forward.
For the film, the UNHCR sought out a Vietnam War refugee family that has gone on to sponsor Syrian refugees today.
“It’s quite a complex story but we did find it, and it was in Edmonton,” said Kathryn Porteous, co-manager of the UNHCR’s Nansen Refugee Award, a prestigious prize which recognizes humanitarian heroes, from her office in Geneva.
More than 40,000 Syrian refugees have been resettled in Canada as of Jan. 29, 2017, including privately sponsored and government-assisted refugees, according to a Government of Canada report.
Tran-Davies’ journey to becoming a sponsor starts with her own refugee story.
At four years old, Tran-Davies, her widowed mother and five siblings boarded the bottom of a small, rickety fishing vessel packed with 300 people, fleeing the suffering of post-war Vietnam.
“It was hard for everyone on the boat because of the waves thrashing on the boat,” she recalls. “A lot of people became nauseous and sickly because of it and so a lot of people were throwing up. I just remember how suffocating it was and the feeling of nausea and sickness.”
Her family was lucky to make it to a Malaysian refugee camp alive.
For eight long months, her mother, Huong Tran, prayed every day that a country would sponsor her large family.
“For a while Mom felt nobody wanted us, but one day we got news that Canada wanted us.” The family arrived in 1979.
Dubbed the ‘Vietnamese Boat People’, more than two million people fled the war-torn country in the 1970s. Canada accepted more than 100,000 of these refugees.
The heroic humanitarian effort saw the people of Canada become the first whole country to be awarded the UNHCR’s Nansen Refugee Award in 1986.
“Of course we heard about the Vietnamese refugees and the Boat People, and when you heard the reports you were just devastated,” said Leona Heuver, one of the original sponsors of the Tran family.
Heuver was part of the group led by Oblate priest Rev. Gilles Gauthier, who banded together in search of a family to sponsor.
“Father chose a family that he didn’t think would get chosen,” she said.
Mrs. Tran, a single mother with six children, only skilled as a seamstress, fit the bill.
“Many other nations may feel that we would be a burden to their country, to their community, but Father Gauthier and our other sponsors specifically wanted us because they knew that we would have not had a chance at a better life otherwise,” said Tran-Davies, who is now a family physician in Calmar, Alta.
Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies (top left) and her family were sponsored as refugees by Our Lady of Mercy Parish when they escaped Vietnam in 1979. She has paid forward their favour some 40 years later by sponsoring the Alshablis, a Syrian refugee family. Her inspiring story of generosity will be highlighted in a film to be released by the UN this fall.
“It was not money they gave us, it was not anything other than love. It opened a whole new world, a whole new life for us, and so I feel humbled to be in a situation now where I can finally be able to pay forward all the kindness and generosity that was given to us.”
Last year, Somaya and Alaa Alshabli welcomed the birth of their youngest child, Janna, surrounded by friends in their new home in Edmonton.
Two of their older children, Rimas, now 4, and Mustafa, 2, were born in refugee camps in Jordan.
“It was difficult to live there,” said Somaya, speaking in Arabic through a translator. “We wanted a dignified life.”
Somaya treasures the doll that was given to her daughter by Tran-Davies when they finally arrived to safety in Canada.
“We try not to play with it too much because we want, when our children grow up, to tell them the story about this doll,” said Somaya. “We’ll tell them the truth—that this doll was given to us by very kind people with kind hearts who helped us in a difficult time to be what we will be then.”
“Many other nations may feel that we would be a burden to their country, to their community, but Father Gauthier and our other sponsors specifically wanted us because they knew that we would have not had a chance at a better life otherwise.”
Parishes in the Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton have sponsored 546 Syrian refugees since 2014, said Paulette Johnson, refugee sponsorship coordinator for the Archdiocese.
Sponsoring a family, even with a large group, is a huge undertaking, said Tran-Davies.
She is still grateful for all the work her own sponsors put in to settle her family when they arrived in 1979 ̶ like taking her and her siblings to school, to the dentist’s office, and medical appointments.
“I had great role models, so there were standards in my mind to guide me in how I should care for these refugees,” said Tran-Davies. “And so when Somaya and Alaa came, I did my best and did not do it alone.”
Tran-Davies sponsored the Alshablis with a group of friends. With another group of former Vietnamese refugees, she also sponsored a second Syrian refugee family.
Language is one of the greatest challenges for refugees, said Heuver, who interviewed Mrs. Tran and the family for a multicultural class she was taking. Tran spoke little English, and speaks little English today.
“I asked if she would ever do it again, and that was the first time – and probably the last time – I’ve seen Mrs. Tran cry. She said, ‘No. It’s too hard,’ so there were probably a lot of things she couldn’t share with us.”
The Alshablis arrived with no English skills at all, but Alaa has managed to secure a part-time job at a restaurant, while continuing to take English classes full-time.
Just like Tran-Davies, who has maintained a close bond with her original sponsors to this day, the Alshablis have no plans of cutting ties with those who have helped them.
“When we left Syria, we thought that we are now disconnected from everyone, particularly the family because we had nobody here,” said Alaa. “But now, after knowing Nhung and her family, they are our family here.
“I am grateful to her and whatever I say, it won’t suffice to describe how kind she is because she helped our family in this way. And I hope one day, we can help others as they’ve helped (us), or if not us, then our children can.”