Skip to main content

Prayer and Advocacy Help Reunite a Family

February 9, 2022
Photo provided by Open Homes Hamilton

Two Christian Reformed congregations became part of a story of reunion for a family from Yemen after more than three years of separation.

Meadowlands CRC in Ancaster, Ont., and Community CRC of Meadowvale in Mississauga, Ont., advocated, prayed, and contributed financially to the coming together of a family separated by circumstances of war and need.

Mahmoud* and his daughter Rayya* came to Canada in 2018 on a medical visa to seek help and treatment for Rayya, who lives with cerebral palsy. The medical visa allows only one parent to accompany a child seeking treatment, so Mahmoud’s wife, Aisha*, and their two other children stayed behind in Yemen.

Because of a dangerous situation in their homeland, Mahmoud and Rayya claimed refugee status soon after their arrival, and they were connected with Open Homes Hamilton, which helps to settle refugee claimants by offering home-based hospitality and relational support. The organization is supported in part by a NewGround grant from Diaconal Ministries Canada. With the help of another organization, they were settled in an accessible apartment to accommodate Rayya’s needs.

Danielle Steenwyk-Rowaan and her colleague Katie Karsten at Open Homes Hamilton worked with the family to help them adapt to life in the city of Hamilton and to navigate the medical system. Mahmoud was also working to obtain permanent resident status, which he needed in order to seek permission to bring his wife and their two other children into Canada. The situation in Yemen for Aisha and their children Ulima* and Ahsan* was tense, said Steenwyk-Rowaan, with violence, food shortages, cholera outbreaks, and other dangers affecting everyday life in Yemen.

“Yemen is now a country in which the basics of a decent human life have stopped since the beginning of the war in 2015,” said Mahmoud. He added, “We were not welcomed by the rich neighboring countries, and the best option was [to go to] any safe and stable country that would welcome those who had lost their first home. Canada was the best option.”

Mahmoud was anxious to be reunited with his family and to remove them from a troubled situation, said Steenwyk-Rowaan. “Here’s this family, and half of them are safe and supported, and Rayya is getting the care she needs for her cerebral palsy, and they have their refugee status. . . . But the other half of the family is in this war zone, in hiding. And it has been just a really painful waiting time for them – really scary and hard.”

It was at that point that Meadowlands CRC came into the story. “Meadowlands CRC did a Faith in Action workshop with Cindy Stover,” a justice mobilizer for the Christian Reformed Church in North America, said Steenwyk-Rowaan, and part of the workshop included “a video of Mahmoud [describing] his situation.”

In response, workshop participants sent letters to advocate on Mahmoud’s behalf to Bob Bratina, the MP at the time for the Hamilton East-Stoney Creek electoral district. “That MP’s office was very helpful” and instrumental in the residency process, Steenwyk-Rowaan noted, adding, “It was really lovely . . . an act of God.”

Once Mahmoud received permanent resident status, he had to complete the visa process to bring the rest of his family to Canada. Aisha needed to obtain a visa and take a number of other steps in the immigration process, and the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning to cause delays. It also became clear to Mahmoud and to Open Homes staff that they needed funds for medical and administrative requirements, as well as airfare to help Aisha and the children travel to Canada.

Sam Cooper, pastor of Community CRC of Meadowvale, shared how his church then became involved. In January 2021 Cooper had felt led to pray for Yemen, and he invited his church to learn about and pray for the Middle Eastern nation along with him.

And in a sermon a year later, he reflected, “In February [2021], we received a call from Open Homes Hamilton. We had partnered with Danielle around other social justice initiatives, so she was calling regarding a Yemeni refugee named Mahmoud and his daughter Rayya. [They] were struggling. Learning English was hard enough, but worrying about his wife, Aisha, and their two other children back home was exhausting. Would we consider helping them financially so that they could be reunited here in Canada? A refugee family from Yemen? Days or maybe weeks after we learned that Yemen was on God’s heart? It didn’t take long for the deacons here to say yes.”

Both the Meadowlands and Meadowvale congregations continued to pray for the family. Aisha and the children needed to go to the Canadian embassy in Oman for the final step of formally receiving their Canadian visas and to wrap up other required paperwork. Steenwyk-Rowaan set up a Go Fund Me campaign, to which many in the churches contributed, to raise money for a taxi to take Aisha, Ulima, and Ahsan across the desert. They had to go through “an area not really under control of the government,” said Steenwyk-Rowaan, and along the way “there are bandits. . . . For a woman and two kids, it’s not a great place to be going. There were people all over praying for them as they took that taxi.”

Meanwhile, Sharon Davis-Payton, a member of Meadowlands CRC and the church’s point person for Open Homes Hamilton, contacted Steenwyk-Rowaan with an important tip: she knew Jeffrey and Melissa Bos who serve with the Al Amana Centre in Muscat, said Steenwyk-Rowaan.

The Al Amana Centre is a Christian ecumenical and interfaith organization supported by the CRCNA that works to promote peace and tolerance among Muslims and Christians around the world.

Davis-Payton’s husband, James Payton, sent a message to Jeffrey Bos, program manager at Al Amana, and when Aisha and the children arrived in Muscat, the Boses received them at the Al Amana Centre. “Aisha and the two younger children stayed with us at the Al Amana Centre from Dec. 22 to Jan. 18,” said Bos. “They were a Christmas gift to us, as we were able to provide space and had time to give.” He added, “They blessed all of us, giving us an opportunity to extend hospitality during our holiday.”

During Aisha and the children’s stay in Muscat, Jeffrey Bos took them around the city to access what they needed in order to process visas and meet other immigration requirements, and Melissa Bos took them on outings. Jeffrey noted, “Aisha told [Melissa] she did not want to leave Yemen and was deeply saddened that foreign powers were creating conflict.”

He added, “I hope that we were able to help her and her children on their long journey . . . by providing a safe place, a place to rest well while waiting, and to begin to make some major life and cultural adjustments.”

When all of the paperwork was processed and they had received their visas, Aisha, Ulima, and Ahsan flew to Canada, arriving one day after a major snowstorm in southern Ontario, where Mahmoud and Rayya met them at the airport.

“Reuniting with my family was the happiest moment of our lives,” said Mahmoud. “Thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone who stood by us.”

Davis-Payton shared, “On Jan. 18, 2022, exactly one year since we started our advocacy, the family was reunited. God provided family unity and connectedness through our advocacy for the vulnerable even in a time of pandemic isolation.”

Steenwyk-Rowaan reflected, “They are here. Mahmoud looks like a younger man. Rayya is nonverbal, but she has this way of screaming with joy when she sees someone she knows. I didn’t get to be there when they picked up the family, but I can just imagine that scream of joy.”

*Names changed to protect the privacy of the family