WOW Ambassador: Mary-Martha Hale
Nominator: Hiba Omar

Dreaming of an Education

On their initial night in Canada in November 2016, when they stayed at Mary-Martha Hale’s house, the first English word Hiba Omar and her younger sister blurted out was “school.”  

Seven years ago, her family had fled war-torn Aleppo, and lived as refugees in Turkey for five years.  Hiba missed grades three to eight and so yearned to have an education. Instead she found herself working in her mother’s home business to help the family make ends meet.  

“I really missed going to school and as refugees we experienced resentment from the local people,” remembers Hiba. Then they were offered the chance to immigrate to Canada.  “I felt so happy to know I was coming to Canada, but a bit scared and sad about leaving family back in Syria. 

When her family arrived in Ottawa, Mary-Martha was at the airport, along with other sponsorship group members from St. Albans Church.  “When I saw Mary-Martha, I liked her immediately and felt safe,” says Hiba. “She does a lot for my family. She’s like a second mother who I can confide.  She understands me and gives me choices on how to solve problems. Mary-Martha is a very nice person and really cares about our family and refugees. ”  

Mary-Martha has shown warmth and hospitality to the newcomer community. “For the last two Christmases, Mary-Martha and her husband have invited her refugee sponsorship group, another refugee family and my family to their home for a potluck Christmas party,” remarks Hiba. 

The Omar family of six is the second family the church has sponsored through the federal government’s Blended Visa Office-Referred (BVOR) program, where the government splits the cost of supporting a refugee family for one year with the private sponsorship group. 

Mary-Martha had a long career as a social worker and executive director of Centre 454 which provide services for people at risk for homelessness. A year after retiring in 2014, the crisis in Syria unfolded and her church quickly mobilized and sponsored families through the BVOR.  

After the busy first six months with the Omars, which included bringing the family to all their medical appointments and helping with the myriad of paper work, Mary-Martha was unsure if she would stay involved. 

But she has not only remained involved, she has become a mainstay in the family’s life and is particularly close to 15 year-old Hiba. After school on Thursdays, Hiba goes to Mary-Martha’s house for tutoring with math and other subjects. After feeding her dinner, Mary-Martha drives Hiba home, then picks up her brother Mohammed and brings him to Cubs.  

Hiba and Mary-Martha fondly remember one of their first tutoring sessions where the first science question was about a fossil in Iceland. Mary-Martha realized Hiba has few reference points and explained what a fossil is and where Iceland is located.   

You can see the sense of pride in Mary-Martha’s eyes as she describes Hiba’s rapid progress in the last two years. “She’s a very bright girl and has almost caught up to the other grade 10 students,” she explains. “After only six months in school, she received the Principal’s Leadership Award. In grade nine she made the honour roll and received three medals.”   

Hiba speaks four languages:  Arabic, Turkish, Kurdish and English, and is now learning French. Like many newcomer children, Hiba often acts as the translator for her parents and seems much older than her age. She plans to become an English teacher and work with newcomer students.  

Often young people can benefit from having another adult, in addition to their parents to look up to and Hiba has found this special relationship in Mary-Martha.   

Mary-Martha adds that Hiba’s success is because of hard work and tenacity. “She’s the inspiring one, she’s really the Ambassador, because she has overcome so many obstacles and is truly thriving with a new language and culture.” 

Although Hiba misses her family in Syria and Germany, her life has become more similar to Syria before the war. And most importantly, Hiba has fulfilled her dream of an education, something that had once seemed impossible.