Cecil and Shirley Massong took in a Bosnian Muslim family in 1994.

Cecil and Shirley Massong took in a Bosnian Muslim family in 1994.

Helping hand to another

Former refugee wants to house Syrians.

It was the little things that Shirley and Cecil Massong did that helped a refugee family find its way and speed settlement in a new land.

The Maple Ridge couple had signed up as a host family in 1994 with the Immigrant Services Society and ended up helping a Bosnian Muslim family who had fled the terrors of the civil war that raged in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

Among that family was a little girl, now a woman with a family of her own, who is now offering the basement suite in her house to a Syrian family.

The woman lives in Maple Ridge and can’t be identified.

“They want to give back, want to give back. She’s got three little kids, she’s a busy lady. She feels this compulsion to give back,” Shirley explains.

As a host family, Shirley and Cecil just had to spend a couple of hours a week with the refugees for a period of six months, to help them get oriented to life on the on the West Coast of Canada.

“It’s pretty complicated when you come from a small rural town in Bosnia … to understanding TransLink,” Shirley says.

The couple took the newcomers to tourist spots around Metro Vancouver and to the Calgary Stampede, the latter which it had heard of back in Bosnia.

There were more everyday tasks for which they needed help.

“For instance, none of them had had any dental work,” said Shirley, now retired.

But the couple found out that UBC dental students worked for free, so treatment was arranged at the university.

Navigating the credit-addicted world of the Canadian economy also required help.

“They couldn’t even rent a rug shampooer because they didn’t have a credit card,” Shirley recalls.

When it came time for the family to find a better apartment in Burnaby, their move was cancelled at the last minute, not because of discrimination, but because the family had no credit history.

Later, “They saved enough money to put a down payment on a house,” but couldn’t get a mortgage.

The Massongs helped out there, as well.

There were tougher stumbling blocks, however.

“They didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak Serbian,” Cecil recalled.

Language was the biggest barrier, he added, and that’s what the Syrians are saying, too.

That’s where it helps to be young and smart.

Shirley recalls that very quickly the little girl was speaking English and serving as translator for her parents.

While settling in a new land halfway around the world isn’t easy, it was a hard-earned achievement.

The dad had been locked in a Serbian-run concentration camp, the infamous Omarska, and was only approved to come to Canada after the Red Cross arranged a prisoner-release deal, on condition that all freed prisoners leave the country. That’s how they got spread out around the world, she adds.

“He spent six months in Omarska,” said Cecil.

“He literally went through hell.”

The UN’s International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has prosecuted war crimes and crimes against humanity from the area during that time.

Shirley notes that while the father was in the prison, he lost 30 kilograms. Photos of camp survivors resemble those from Nazi concentration camps.

“He had no front teeth. Somebody had knocked out his front teeth with a rifle butt.”

The father narrowly escaped with his life. Every morning guards would call out several names of prisoners.

“Then they’d march them out,” said Cecil.

They never came back.

One day, the father’s name was called. But a guard recognized him from when they were school friends and told him to stay.

Despite the nightmare, Shirley points out the family now has more than if it had ever stayed in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

“They point out that no matter how hard they worked, there’s no way they could ever afford a house like that. They really appreciate the advantages of this country and the opportunities.

“And they realize that even though they went to hell and back for two years, they point out that they’re better off than they would be if this never happened.”

After 21 years, the Massongs still keep in touch. Cecil and Shirley consider them family.

“They’re good citizens,” says Cecil.

“They’re dear friends.”