I met Michèle Hozer at our neighbourhood ‘Pub Night’. Every other Thursday, the Waupoos crew gathered to clink glasses and dive into the culinary magic that Sarah Harrison conjures up in her kitchen at the Waupoos Pub. Michèle, an Emmy-nominated and Gemini-winning filmmaker and editor, with two films on the Oscar shortlist, was a ‘temp’ neighbour, renting a friend’s home nearby with her husband while she shot her documentary on the new life of the Al Jasem family—an extended clan of fourteen Syrians, transplanted into Prince Edward County.
The result of her time here is the awesome SponsorLand series, a messy, beautiful, and deeply emotional behind-the-scenes look at the realization of Canada’s 2016 open-door to refugees legislation.
“There are two things that marked my experience in making SponsorLand. Firstly, Prince Edward County itself,” Michèle confessed, “I had no idea I would fall in love with it. I remember driving back from our first visit here, I called my husband and said, ‘You know there is something about this place…’. There is a very strong ‘can-do’ spirit in the County that is very palatable.
The second thing that surprised me was how far this commitment and relationship between PEC Syria and the Al Jasem family have gone. They arrived at the end of October in 2015 and three years later that commitment is still as strong. Those kind of bonds are a real testament to our Canadian sponsorship program.
In an interesting parallel—our short-term neighbours decided to convert their own status to permanent County residents. “Of course you know the end of our story,” Michèle laughs, “two and a half years later we bought a farmhouse.”
A Letter from Sponsor|Land Director, Michèle Hozer
I’m the Belgian-born daughter of Sephardic Jews from Cairo with a Syrian grandmother who was transplanted at a young age to Laval, in suburban Montreal. It was during the Quiet Revolution and no one seemed to talk about diversity. I spent the entirety of my childhood trying to fit in only to be betrayed by my accent or worse, my mother’s food. I remember wishing for cheezies and hot dogs on my tenth birthday, but had to instead embarrassedly explain the sambousek and kibbeh being served to my bewildered friends.
So when TVO made a call looking for the stories of Canadians “with a foot in two cultures”, I was like that same ten year old jumping up and eagerly raising her hands, “pick me! Pick me!”
It was the beginning of the Syrian refugee crisis and the federal government had pledged alongside everyday Canadians to bring in tens of thousands of displaced people, hopefully giving them better lives. It was a neat story and Canadians became international heroes, but real life is probably not something that fits into a neat story. Arriving in Canada was going to be the beginning and not the end of the story.
With my crew, I headed to Prince Edward County to follow the arrival of one particular Syrian family with eleven kids, who had been sponsored by an eclectic group of local volunteers. When I saw them settling in Picton, Ontario, I was reminded of the Laval of my childhood, then untouched by multiculturalism, and thought of my own Syrian grandmother.
After a few shoots, I came to feel that my crew was going to be unwieldy. The size and nature of the family meant that a traditional shoot was going to lead to a superficial film. So much was happening inside the family that I would need to embed myself in order to understand the story. So I got myself a camera and a microphone and I moved my husband and dog to The County.
I embraced the chaos. My supervising producer Noah Bingham and I were suddenly coaches, babysitters, or whatever other roles the family needed at any given time. I came to understand the intensity of the sponsor’s role: they had pledged to do all this and be financially responsible to this family for a full year. What were the boundaries and how far will good intentions get us? This was a metaphorical marriage and there was no guarantee of success: a lot of give, a bit of take, and the hope that with a little luck and patience it will work out.
I delved into the lives of the family from the viewpoint of a local, spending many days around the house, and many evenings around the table, grateful for the very sambousek and kibbeh that dismayed my ten year old self. “Shway shway” is an Arabic expression meaning “bit by bit” and it became a sort of mantra for this makeshift family.
I bonded with Sawsen, the unflappable matriarch, who taught me not only how to laugh at the setbacks but also how to roll the tightest grape leaves this side of Damascus. I got to watch the eldest sons Slieman and Ramez as they struggled with not just the particular horrors of surviving a civil war but also the painful horrors of adolescence. I watched and wondered how little Fadl will grow to be immersed in County culture.
Half a century after my family settled in Laval, Quebec, it’s now a town of intersecting cultures with everyone speaking in their own accent and you can find kibbeh in the grocery stores. Will Picton, Ontario also grow and change with its newest residents? At the end of the film, sponsor Carlyn Moulton reminds us that this story is not a story that we can think about in terms of the year of sponsorship, any immigrant story is a multigenerational story.
What will happen when Slieman or Ramez have kids? Will Sawsen be serving cheezies and hot dogs on Fadl’s tenth birthday? That’s the real story.