Syrian Eagles founder Neveen Faress helps refugees settle in Canada

Syrian Eagles. Photo courtesy of founder Neveen Faress.
Syrian Eagles. Photo courtesy of founder Neveen Faress. /

Playing for 90 spoke to Syrian Eagles founder Neveen Faress on her motivation for starting a team for Syrian refugees and the help she has received along the way.

Much of what the public hears about Syria and Syrian refugees is overwhelmingly negative. Whether its presidential candidates declaring that they should be banned or talking heads on news channels making up statistics about what happens when countries take them in.

The reality is that the vast majority of refugees, Syrian or otherwise, are just regular people looking for safety and security in a place that is new and foreign to them in almost every way. In the case of Syrian refugees in Toronto, one woman, Neveen Faress, decided that soccer would be an excellent way to help them settle in to their new home.

Here is Neveen’s story and the story of the club she founded in Toronto’s recreational Muslim Soccer League, the Syrian Eagles:

Tell us a little bit about yourself, what’s your background?

My name is Neveen Faress and I am a single mother and Realtor in the cities of Toronto and Mississauga. I graduated from Sheridan College as a Social Service Worker. Despite moving to Canada from Egypt when I was 3, I have always kept in touch with my Middle Eastern heritage.

I actually had the opportunity to move back to the motherland for a brief period where I witnessed the Arab Spring. However, I came back to Canada after seeing the lack of safety and stability in Egypt.

What motivated you to start the Syrian Eagles? Who else is involved?

The idea to start the Syrian Eagles developed over a few months. Initially, I was planning to sponsor a local hockey team in Mississauga that my cousin played for. However, this was around the same time when the Syrians began to arrive in Canada and there was a lot of discussion around resettlement and integration.

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It was great to see the number of activities that were geared towards the younger Syrians, however, there was a shortage of activities aimed towards teenagers and young adults. I spoke to my brother who was involved in organizing a community soccer league in Toronto. He suggested that I start up a soccer team for Syrian teenagers and adults.

Given the popularity of the sport in Syria, we hoped it would be something the participants would enjoy. It would hopefully also offer them the opportunity to meet other newcomers and other Canadians and hopefully begin to ease their transition to life in Toronto. I was sold on the idea and decided to start the Syrian Eagles project!

The idea grew with the help of my siblings and parents. My sister, Yasmine. designed the flyers. Hala and I recruited players from The Toronto Plaza Hotel, (a landing pod for all newcomers). Salma helped me collect donations and my parents Suzan and Mohamed got up every Sunday to prep the refreshments for the team. Of course my daughter, Maya, helped too – she was my little helper each week at the games. It really was a family effort.

How has it helped the refugees get settled in Canada? What sorts of issues are they dealing with as they get settled?

The idea of the project was to use soccer as a driving tool to aid with their transition. Soccer is a familiar sport to Syrians and we used it as a platform to encourage them to get out and meet new people. I believe that the familiarity of the soccer environment could make integration into the Canadian culture and society less intimidating.

The project has given them a sense of comfort and has allowed them to build a sense of identity in this new country. The project has given them a support system by meeting other newcomers that are facing similar challenges as them as well as meeting other Canadians. In fact, it has truly built a community! It has provided them with the opportunity to make new friends and develop their confidence.

Most importantly, it’s a chance to have fun and encourage healthy living (both physically and mentally). The players definitely look forward to our weekly games. The majority of my players work and have families. I hope that the skills and qualities that the players have gathered from being a part of a team and a part of this project will play a role in helping the players establish themselves and their families in Canada.

When we gather, we put all our problems aside. The field is a place for them to let go, and enjoy. Issues that they face are not something that we discuss in detail. However, my players know that they can call me for any help.

I have had a player who needed legal help and I was able to connect him with a lawyer. Also, any job opportunities that I hear of, I send their way. Any household donations we receive as well, I send their way.

I think their biggest challenge is finding job opportunities in the careers they had back home. For example, I have a teacher who is working at a fast food restaurant and an engineer who is a pizza delivery person. What these players and all newcomers need is the opportunity to work in their field. That’s how I wish to help them – by connecting them with people who will advance them in their careers.

Syrian Eagles. Photo courtesy of founder Neveen Faress.
Syrian Eagles. Photo courtesy of founder Neveen Faress. /

What has Toronto FC done to help the refugees? Has any other organization or club reached out?

Toronto FC heard about us through the Canadian Arab Institute. They reached out and invited the Eagles to the Kia Training Grounds on September 24th. We had the chance to practice and have a scrimmage on the fields.

The players also had the opportunity to dine in the TFC first lounge and were given a tour of the facility. On September 28th, along with 1400 other newcomers, we were invited to watch a TFC game at BMO Field. The team also got the chance to meet Dwayne De Rosario.

Vanessa Antinucci from Lululemon Toronto reached out to us as well. They invited us to their Catalyst Block Party event on September 22. They were also so kind to donate all proceeds from this event towards the Syrian Eagles project.

Adeeb Sharif from Dwibee Jerseys was also kind enough to design, produce and donate the jerseys for the team this season! It has been great to see the support we’ve received from such a diverse range of groups in Toronto. I know it means a lot to the players.

A lot of the rhetoric in the US is anti-refugee, what makes Canada different?

Canada is known for its diversity and I think our current government has made it very clear that diversity is one of our strengths. I can’t speak for all but I believe that if another human being is in need, it’s our duty to help.

I have met other Canadians who share the same philosophy and have met others that disagree. I am thankful that (Prime Minister Justin)Trudeau has welcomed the Syrians and I believe we need more leaders like him who are speaking more positively about diversity and recognizing the enormous potential of multiculturalism.

How can people get involved in helping the Syrian Eagles or Syrian refugees in general?

Our season has unfortunately come to an end. However, the good news is that due to high demand the Eagles’ coach, Abdou El Mousli, and I have decided to expand the project next year to two teams: a competitive team as well as a recreational team. Funds are needed to fulfill this project.

If you are interested in helping, please spread the word and donate whatever you can to our Support the Eagles page. The Eagles also welcome any other opportunities or collaborations and we can be reached through our Facebook page.

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In terms of other organizations that are active in helping the Syrian cause, Toronto is fortunate to have so many including the Arab Community Centre of Toronto, Mes Amis, Ahlan Syria, Lifeline Syria, and the Canadian Centre for Refugee and Immigrant Health Care.