In conversation with the director of SponsorLand

Michèle Hozer's latest documentary examines the relationship between a Syrian refugee family and their Canadian sponsors 

In conversation with the director of <em>SponsorLand</em>

Michèle Hozer is an Emmy-nominated and Gemini-winning Canadian documentary filmmaker, known for films including Sugar Coated, Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould, and Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Romeo Dallaire. Her newest documentary, SponsorLand, follows the relationship between a Syrian refugee family and their sponsor group in Picton, Ontario. The film explores themes of belonging, diversity, and community. 

The Varsity spoke to Hozer before the film’s premiere on November 8 to discuss the importance of gaining the family’s trust and authentically documenting their collective and individual stories while maintaining respect for their privacy. 

The Varsity (TV): What inspired you to create this documentary?

Michèle Hozer (MH): In 2015, at this time exactly, TVO threw a national callout to filmmakers across the country, looking for films for Canada’s 150th birthday. They were looking for films that explore the theme of Canadians having one foot in one culture and one foot in the other. And I totally responded to that. 

At the time of the TVO call, the Syrian refugee crisis was in full force. Canadians were responding. We were bringing in 25,000 refugees. I thought [it was] great to sort of see how refugees deal with coming into Canada. 

I wanted to move away from the 30-second, feel-good news items and TV items. What really goes on? What happens to the refugees? They are very grateful for being in Canada, but they really miss their home country. Is there a line between care and control when it comes to sponsors, even the well-intentioned?

That’s the basis of the documentary. How much, as refugees, do they have to sort of give up in order to fit in? I was trying to stay [out] of the politics of the war, and I wanted to go beyond ‘they left hell and came to heaven and we lived happily ever.’ No. There are issues. Do we have, as Canadians, ingrained biases in terms of refugees and in terms of ‘we’re the best country in the world?’

We don’t use [the family’s] last name because they asked us not to use it — they fear retribution back in Syria. In fact, we geo-blocked the film, and our Facebook page and everything else, so it doesn’t appear in either Syria, Lebanon, or Turkey. That’s why we don’t use their last name. But I thought, ‘What a great story.’ 

Picton, like my hometown of Laval, is kind of immune from diversity. Multiculturalism hasn’t come to Picton. We thought that was a great story to follow, but in order to do it properly, I had to be embedded in the community. My husband and my dog, we were there from January to July. I set up my edit room there. I needed to get the trust of the community. I needed to get the trust of the family. 

TV: While you were filming the documentary, what were some of the setbacks or obstacles you had to overcome to depict the right kind of story and tone?

MH: I couldn’t really bring my team in all the time. It was very invasive. So I got my DOP [director of photography], John Tran, one of the best in the country. I got a camera from him, got a mic, got Camera 101 course. I got two sessions from him — school of filmmaking. I started filming myself with my supervising producer. 

It was much easier to do it that way, much less intrusive. We had spent many hours around [family members] Abdel Malek and Sawsen’s kitchen. That way we were able to take out the camera when the time was right. It was always in my car, always in a bag in the corner of my house. At one point, we gained so much of their trust that Sawsen, one of the evenings, said, “Michèle, take out your camera.” 

The other challenge, too, is that I had to wait to see who wanted to share their story, and that took time. Sawsen was interested, [sons] Slieman and Ramez were interested. They were really interested in speaking English with me. Some of the interviews were in English. But to really get the nuance of what they were feeling, and the struggles that they had, we had to do the interviews in Arabic. I had two really good, trusted counsellors and translators with me, Rasha Elendari, who’s a PhD in Toronto at U of T. She runs the NMC-CESI Language and Cultural Exchange group — it’s very big in the Syrian community. She helped with those interviews, especially with Slieman, who really gets a lot in that interview. 

I think Slieman is really an interesting guy because he’s really quite charming and tons of fun, but he carries a lot from the war. And to show that duality was really, really important. It took a long time to get him to trust us, to get him to open up to us, and I think it was just spending time with him, just hanging out, listening to him, going out with him. So, that was the big challenge. 

Also, the nuances with the sponsors and the family. It’s very easy to sometimes want to sit back and have a critical eye, but it’s not easy to sponsor a family. It’s almost like an arranged marriage, right? They don’t know each other, and then they’re in this intense relationship that’s only supposed to be a year. 

The nuance was really important and a challenge in terms of getting it right with the camera and with the perspective. It’s not an easy relationship; there’s no road map. It just takes time and patience and effort to make that relationship work. 

TV: Are you still in contact with the family? 

MH: Oh yeah! I haven’t been there in a while because we’re just finishing the film. They keep saying, ‘Where are you?’ They kept calling me ‘okhti,’ which means sister. I became very close to them. I hope to go back. Actually, we loved it so much that we hope to get a place there — not leave Toronto completely. I mean, eventually. It’s a great community. It’s really, really great. 

TV: What are you hoping this documentary will achieve on a grander scale?

MH: There are two answers to that question. 

There is this fear of others. We did elect the Liberal government, and we got them in, but there are still a portion of Canadians who are worried and weary. The first thing we wanted to do is to really get people to understand who Abdel Malek and Sawsen are — they’re like you and me. They’re a normal family, a bit larger, bit more rambunctious, but they have the same kind of needs and concerns that we do. 

Now, they lived through a civil war and hardships that we didn’t live through, but I think our goal was to get a sense that they’re not a family we need to fear, especially the boys. Ramez and Slieman are of the age, those young men, who we’re the most fearful of. If they didn’t belong in the family, maybe they wouldn’t have been able to be accepted as refugees. Meanwhile, they are so loving. They’re like normal teenagers, and even that scene when, in January 2017 I guess it was, the killings in the mosque in Québec City, Ramez’s response: ‘I’m not going to judge all Canadians based on this one guy who killed in the mosque. Don’t judge all of us based on a few terrorists.’ He wants to stand like Canadians, he cares about his family. He wants their safety and he will stand with Canadians against global terrorism. I think that’s one answer. 

The second answer is, what does it mean to be a refugee? What is the relationship between the refugees and the sponsors? When we give help for free, is there this inherent sort of expectation in return? As a refugee, how do you be grateful but at the same time, give agency to your needs? How much do we have to give up as a refugee or immigrant to fit in? I think these are all important questions. We don’t pretend to answer all of them, but it’s something to explore, so that there’s a greater understanding of different culture and acceptance. 

 This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

U of T student releases charity song to benefit survivors of Syrian conflict

Adham Assaad's "White Helmets" is told from the perspective of a young Syrian child

U of T student releases charity song to benefit survivors of Syrian conflict

With his latest song, singer-songwriter and U of T student Adham Assaad has attempted the impossible: releasing a song about a highly political topic while remaining politically neutral. The result, “White Helmets,” is written from the perspective of a young boy in war-torn Syria who is forced to endure an array of unthinkable atrocities.

Assaad moved to Canada in 2005 and is currently entering his second year, studying Political Science. Having always had an interest in modern politics, he says his studies are an important part of his musical inspiration. “I like the fact that I get to use some of what I learn in making my music. I’d be sitting in my classes with a notepad just writing lyrics, with absolutely no intention to record any of it or even showing it to my closest friends or family,” writes Assaad.

His studies are not his only source of inspiration. “Anytime something starts to consume my thoughts, it usually ends up as a verse on a notepad somewhere, usually that’s how I deal with a lot of things in my life.”

Throughout his childhood and teenage years, he was often drawn to songwriting and would challenge himself to produce something better each time. Last May, he decided to record and release his debut song, “Now Playing,” and in doing so, he felt like he had broken the ice. He waited for his next moment of inspiration to begin another project.

Assaad paid attention to the Syrian civil war from its beginning stages. “After an airstrike earlier in the year, I was looking through pictures of the aftermath,” he says. “It really started to hit me that there are people living in these conditions daily, and have no choice but to live every day trying to survive.”

Assaad notes that his Egyptian background has a role in his connection to the crisis in Syria. “Being from that part of the world, it definitely hits home,” he says. “This part of the world is pretty unstable so you never know what might happen, and I think Egypt narrowly avoided a similar fate. I just found myself thinking, ‘Wow, this really could’ve been my own city that’s destroyed.’”

The experiences of airstrikes, fearing for safety while walking to school, living among the rubble, not having clean water, and the horrors of having to dig a parents’ grave are all mentioned in “White Helmets.”

“I tried to paint the picture as clearly as possible,” says Assaad. “Unfortunately, it is based on a true story. But I wouldn’t say it’s based on a single true story, it’s more a combination of real experiences. Everything I wrote about in the song has actually happened to someone during this conflict.”

Assaad felt an increased sense of urgency writing this song because so many people in Canada are removed from the atrocities and violence that are occurring in Syria on a daily basis. The goal of Assaad’s song is to present a small piece of a much bigger picture from a different perspective.

“A lot of people in North America may not be exposed to what’s going on in Syria and take the lives they live for granted, so I wanted to offer up a different lens to look through and see how others are living across the world.”

The perhaps cryptic song title “White Helmets” is a reference to the Syrian volunteer organization that operates in many of the most dangerous areas of Syria and Turkey. Assaad had decided on the title even before writing the first word.

One of Assaad’s goals was also to make the song as politically neutral as possible. “At the end of the day, the ones paying the price of this conflict are these innocent kids who have had their lives and futures ruined, regardless of who caused it,” he says. “The song isn’t meant to be political whatsoever and I made an effort to not favor one side over another… The title raised a few eyebrows, but I think that’s good because it sparks a conversation, which is important.”

Assaad does not have concrete plans for the future of his music but hopes to continue improving himself while making a positive change in the world. “I’m donating the proceeds [from streams] of the song to try and help alleviate the suffering in the area, I hope it reaches as many people as possible, that way we can help save as many people as possible,” he says.

When asked what he hopes for the future of the Middle East, Assaad simply says peace. “Every day there are innocent lives lost and I don’t think anyone wants that to continue for any longer. Honestly, I hope that there is no ‘future of the Syrian conflict.'”

A universal language

Local artists create colouring book for incoming Syrian refugees

A universal language

FOLLOWING Canada’s recent admittance of 25,000 Syrian refugees, one thing has become clear: integration into Canadian society now depends on the quality of the opportunities available to them.

Last February, artists Rafi Ghanaghounian, Andrea Pearce, and Nicole Baillargeon undertook an ambitious project in the form of a colouring book for recently arrived Syrian refugees. Their project, a success in Toronto’s new Syrian community, exists at the nexus of art and social justice and is intended to help Syrian children and their families acclimatize to the new environment. 

Inspired by an idea from Windsor high-school teacher Bronwen Wood, Pearce and Baillargeon, who are both from Windsor, decided to introduce the project in Toronto. Tapping into the wealth of creative talent the city has to offer, the Welcome to Toronto colouring book features artwork from over 25 Toronto artists. The text under each image is in both English and Arabic. 

EDIT_COURTESY MYLENE HANGDAAN - Syrian Refugee Colouring Book 3

Courtesy Mylene Hangdaan.

The book project received financial support from a campaign that helped cover its initial printing costs.

The scenes depicted are a medley of images of some of Toronto’s architectural landmarks, seasonal activities, and favourite pastimes, to introduce Syrian families with Torontonian culture. Adding an individual touch, artists designed images that reflected their personal view of culture in Toronto. 

Ghanaghounian revealed that he had an intimate relation to the refugee experience. “I was also interested in the project because of my own background — as I immigrated to Canada from Iraq just before the war with Iran, as well as my grandparents escaping the Armenian genocide,” he explained. “This project let me reconnect with my own history, and also has allowed me to share the pleasures that Toronto has to offer.” 

The book is being sold online at and at the Spacing Store, the Aga Khan Museum, and the Gardiner Museum, with the goal of raising enough funds to provide each Syrian family resettling in Toronto with a copy.

The book was launched at the Gladstone Hotel last February with a donation of over 500 books to school boards and organizations like Costi, who also helped with distribution. According to Ghanaghounian and Pearce, feedback from all involved has been positive.

On the project’s attempt to mix art and social justice, Baillargeon, Ghanougian, and Pearce agree that the value of art lies in its communicable aspect. Both likened art to a universal language. 

“Art is certainly a natural platform to explore social justice issues. Language and other means of communication can sometimes have limitations that wouldn’t necessarily apply to visual art,” said Pearce. “So much can be expressed in an image; the language of art is universal.”

Ghanaghounian echoes similar sentiments about art’s values: “Art always plays a huge role in any culture and has an ability to bring attention to specific issues that are most relevant to that culture. In this case, art was used to incorporate everyday activities in Toronto to help a specific group encountering numerous challenges to transition more smoothly into their new environment, and it was wonderful to be able to contribute in this way.”

A question of legitimacy

Evaluating the sincerity of humanitarian aid initiatives for Syrian refugees

A question of legitimacy

ON September 15, 2015, University of Toronto president Meric Gertler released a statement addressing the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis. Gertler wrote of the “overwhelming distress, sorrow, and frustration” he felt and stated how he was proud to be part of a community that was “joining an urgent, global response to the tragedy.”

Upon closer examination, however, Gertler’s address did not offer much in response to the crisis. Aside from listing “many examples of research, scholarship, and teaching from across our academic community that directly touch on issues raised by the crisis,” he did not demonstrate how the university is actively working to mitigate the impact of the crisis. 

Gertler did reference the expansion of the university’s Scholars-at-Risk program that will, at first, focus on Syrian students at risk. He also redirected readers to the Ryerson University Lifeline Syria Challenge, in which the University of Toronto has also agreed to partake. Yet, he did not put forward any initiatives the university itself will spearhead in order to provide refugees with what they require most at this time: basic human necessities.

Like those of the rest of North American society, Gertler’s actions — or rather, lack thereof — seem to be induced by psychological egoism. The theory defines every human action as being motivated by self-interest, meaning there are always selfish motives behind what appear to be altruistic actions.

When it comes to the Syrian refugee crisis, the self-motivation stems from its notoreity. People have adopted the crisis as the newest humanitarian trend; everyone is eager to be one of the passengers aboard the humanitarian aid bandwagon. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne’s welcoming of the first plane carrying Syrian refugees to Canada was the onset of the trend. Now, for the sake of public recognition, appeal, and approval, institutions like the University of Toronto are rushing to release statements that purport to highlight exactly how they are “making the world a better place.”

These insincere instances of humanitarian aid being brought forward only result in a lack of genuine commitment to the cause. With Gertler’s address being a prime example of how insincerity merely leads to perfunctory efforts, there are a few irksome components of the university’s contributions that demonstrate its lack of real commitment. 

First, as part of the Scholars-at-Risk program, the university is matching donations up to $500,000. It is questionable why it does not merely kickstart the fundraising campaign by donating the full amount. The funds covering their donation come from undesignated gifts that are to be used towards fundraising activities, and it would have been more effective to have donated the entire amount from the beginning. 

Second, the provision of academic-based financial aid to a select few refugees over the next decade is not an active way to help those in need.

Instead of providing supplemental bursaries — which in the long run, result in more funding for the university — it would be better to donate that money directly to a foundation that is focused on helping refugees adjust to life in Canada.

Third, with over 80,000 students and 7,000 faculty and staff, it is reprehensible that the university is unable to lead its own initiative. There is no doubt that the Ryerson University Lifeline Syria Challenge will be helpful but more could be accomplished if the University of Toronto launched its own project.

Hopefully, the university’s efforts will still manage to benefit some refugees before their time in the spotlight comes to an end. Unfortunately, recent humanitarian-inspired trends have all seemed to end as abruptly as they began. The summer of 2014 brought the short-lived ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, and just a few months ago, the terrorist attacks in Paris sparked a Facebook-wide profile picture update. It would be interesting to note whether or not the participants of these initiatives remember that those people are still suffering today. 

Even more concerning than short-lived, noncommittal humanitarian aid is the objectification of refugees that has resulted from the popularity of the crisis. The media is rife with videos of Syrian children experiencing snow and other features exclusive to Canada, newspaper profiles documenting ‘first days of,’ and public posts claiming ownership over the situation; one woman goes so far as to refer to the person she is sponsoring as “our Syrian refugee.” The individuality of each person coming to Canada for help is becoming lost in the process.

It is time to put the humanity back into humanitarianism and to start performing altruistic actions from a wholehearted place. Although humanitarian aid requires real effort, time, and commitment, it does not need to be documented or publicly displayed. Furthermore, we must always keep in mind that those receiving help are just as human as those providing it. 

Ariel Gomes is a third-year student at Victoria College studying English, French, and linguistics. She is The Varsity‘s associate senior copy editor.

Introducing Toronto’s first hospital-based refugee clinic

Large numbers of Syrian refugees are in need of healthcare, and U of T doctors are helping out

Introducing Toronto’s first hospital-based refugee clinic

Fifteen-thousand Syrian refugees are expected to arrive in Canada by the end of February; most of them are in need of general exams by family physicians, and U of T doctors are doing their part to help.

Meb Rashid is a professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine (DFCM) at U of T and the director of the Crossroads Clinic at Women’s College Hospital, the first hospital-based refugee health clinic in Toronto. Due to the large numbers of Syrian refugees expected to enter Canada, Rashid created a program of rotating intake clinics comprised of family medicine health teams around Toronto to see refugees after they arrive in Canada for initial assessments.

Syrian refugees are checked twice for infectious diseases before coming to Canada, but chronic or latent diseases might go undetected, which is why seeing a family doctor is so important. Rashid’s network includes pediatricians, psychiatrists, dentists, and other specialists to provide quick and easy treatment for patients who need further care.

“I know from my own experience in Lebanon that Syrian refugees there have found it extremely difficult to receive adequate health care,” said Peter Goodspeed who is a journalist and volunteer at Lifeline Syria, an initiative to welcome and support 1,000 Syrian refugees as they settle in the GTA over the next two years through the help of sponsor groups. “So it is essential that they receive immediate attention on their arrival in Canada, simply to ease their own concerns and to speed and ease their integration into Canadian society,” explained Goodspeed.

Refugees may not seek out health care right away due to many different factors, such as difficulty in understanding Canada’s health care system. In late January and early February, Rashid’s network of clinics treated between 200 to 250 refugees in ten days. The network managed to see this many people, even though new refugees were not originally connecting with the clinics as quickly as they were arriving. The clinics were eventually able to reach such high success thanks to the help of Dr. Ben Langer and family medicine residents, who raised awareness of the clinics online and at meetings and fairs.

Some issues Syrian refugees are expected to face are uncompleted vaccinations, hypertension, diabetes, war-related injuries, and mental illness.

Concerns have been raised about a delay in psychological services for refugees suffering from post-traumatic stress or other psychological issues, but the refugee clinics around Toronto aim to offer friendly faces and a place to connect.

Many other U of T doctors are helping to connect Syrian refugees with health care as well. St. Michael’s Hospital doctors Ashna Bowry, professor at DFCM, and Gabrielle Inglis, U of T alumna, teamed up with Mike Evans, DFCM faculty member and YouTube creator, to create an Arabic-language whiteboard YouTube video. The video welcomes Syrian refugees to St. Michael’s Hospital and explains the procedures they will go through at the clinic. Evans said that the family medicine department wanted to create a welcoming experience for refugees.

“[W]hen you have more than enough, some people build fences… but some build a longer table,” said Evans. “We are in the table group.”

Thanks to the support of U of T doctors, the process of finding healthcare has gotten easier for Canada’s newest citizens.