BY JOSEPH TUNNEY
On a rainy late winter afternoon in a church on the outskirts of Saint John, N.B., a family seeking refuge from the civil war in Syria broke bread with new friends in a strange land.
Two weeks earlier, the Saeed family flew from Turkey to New Brunswick to become permanent residents of Canada.
At the Hampton United Church, Burhan Saeed, his wife Nadia Shamso, three sons, aged 8, 10 and 20, their daughter, aged 16, and a couple of dozen members of a refugee sponsorship group, filled plates with pita bread and vaguely Middle Eastern dishes and engaged in short conversations through interpreters.
Verbal communication was a challenge, but the meaning of a shared meal was clear.
“We never expected such a warm welcome,” Burhan Saeed, the father, said through an interpreter. “We’re very happy and thankful to be here. We hope our work ethic will match yours.”
The Saeeds arrived in Hampton through the efforts of the church community, and in particular the work of one man, David Lutz, who says with a smile that he’s spent more time in church these last few months than he has in the past five decades.
Lutz, a Hampton lawyer, remembers what it was like to be an outsider in this same community. That was many years ago, when he was young, a citizen of the United States fleeing the draft during the Vietnam War.
Last year, when Lutz saw the photograph of three-year-old Syrian boy Alan Kurdi dead on a beach in Turkey, he decided to help raise money to bring families to New Brunswick.
“I couldn’t get it out of my brain,” said Lutz. “That, like many other photos I’ve seen during my life, I can’t forget.”
At first, he decided to put up $5,000 himself. Then he went to five couples he knew and asked if they would put up $5,000 each. By the end of the first day had raised $30,000. Eventually he raised another $27,000.
Lutz is more than sympathetic; he’s empathetic. He understands what it means to be lonely and to need a new community of friends.
Lutz sits behind his large dark wooden desk in his law office. He wears a red bowtie with little cows printed on it. With his ash-grey bushy moustache, bald head and circular glasses, he’s a man with a distinct sense of style.
Among the law texts on his shelves, he has placed President Barrack Obama and Jack Kerouac bobble heads. On the wall opposite are wooden tribal masks.
There are photos. One shows a younger Lutz and a group of friends at a wedding in suits leaning against a car, looking like the actors from the movie Reservoir Dogs.
Another is of his draft-dodging buddies. He was drafted in 1969.
“I had been drafted as of the 26th of July and I came here the 10th of August,” Lutz said. “I thought the FBI would be following me and shoot my tires out before I got across the border. But it took them another six years to find me.”
When they did find him, they sent him his indictment papers.
“So I wrote them a letter back and I said, ‘How dare you indict me for refusing to go to Vietnam, burn villages, bayonet babies, rape women, when the entire administration of the United States is corrupt.’ ”
He noted that the man who signed his indictment letters resigned in disgrace after a bribery scandal.
Despite all the ideological misgivings he had about his native country, when he first arrived, Lutz had a simple problem many newcomers have. He was in Hampton, a stranger and alone.
“At first, you’re scared. You don’t know what to expect,” he said about living in a foreign land. “I thought people skied all year round up here and lived in igloos.”
He became a “travelling art teacher,” later a school principal and a social worker. Then, he went to law school.
“I was worried I would be ostracized because I refused to go to war, but as soon as I got here, because of the job I got as an art teacher, I was automatically in the left-wing community of New Brunswick.”
Although President Jimmy Carter would pardon the draft dodgers in 1977, Lutz’s wife gave him an ultimatum. While he could go home, she was staying in Hampton.
He’s had his law office in downtown Hampton ever since. “I came here as anti-establishment and now I are it,” he said. “It’s like Pogo said, ‘We have met the enemy it is us.’”
The Saeeds are just the first of many families Lutz plans to bring to New Brunswick.
They’re on what’s called a blended visa. The government will sponsor them for six months and than the church community will sponsor them for another six months.
Lutz said, this way, he can bring over more refugees with the money he has and provide a higher quality of life.
“The problem is the government can’t give us the families fast enough,” Lutz said.
With his $57,000, Lutz said he could bring over eight families. However, it could become complicated. During the dinner Burhan Saeed told the group that he has two more married daughters, one of who is pregnant, back in Turkey. He wants to bring them to New Brunswick.
“If we do that, we’ll have to do it privately,” Lutz said. “Which will take more of our money because the government won’t help us.”
Families with young children, like the Saeeds, don’t cause security concerns, said Lutz.
The daughters will have to go through the same process their parents went through because they’re now treated as a separate family. The Saeeds spent six months going through the careful preparation needed to get them to Canada.
“But as you can see, these are skilled people,” Lutz said. “The father here is a surveyor, the mother is a beautician and the son is a self-taught barber.”
Lutz said the family has been set up in Saint John for utility reasons, but he calls them his group’s Hampton family.
There is another apartment ready for a family, but Lutz said there’s a delay on blended visas. He said Hampton won’t be able to receive a second family until 10 other United Churches receive their families.
For now, the small town will have only one family. For the Saeeds, this is a good thing.
“This is like having sextuplets,” Lutz said. “All the people in the church, plus other people in the community, are jumping and taking care of our six people.”
After the dinner, Burhan Saeed said he was initially shy when he first walked into the church but was comforted by the warm faces.
“This is the first time I’ve been inside a church,” he said through an interpreter. “I didn’t know what to expect.
“I didn’t know how to thank them.”
He said living in Turkey was difficult. If a Turkish worker received $1,500, the Syrian worker would get $700 to $800. Burhan said his wife helped him through difficult times but now is in a constant state of grief because she misses her daughters.
“She keeps crying,” he said.
But Burhan said the family were grateful for Lutz’s help, that he was a humanitarian.
“He raised our spirit,” he said.
What Lutz seems to want to do is more than be generous. He wants to prove these refugees can work, and he wants to show what newcomers can contribute to the province.
“As soon as we get you out working, people will see what you can do for us,” he said.