'It is my love': Refugee gives back by welding new cross for church

A Syrian immigrant is paying back the Catholic parish that sponsored his family's settlement in Canada by welding a new cross for the 96-year-old church.

Sohail Khazaal, his wife Nada Yakoub and their four young children arrived in Ottawa in November 2016 as sponsors of St. George's Parish on Piccadilly Avenue in the Hampton Park neighbourhood.

The family was part of a small Christian minority in Syria, and has been part of the congregation at St. George's since coming to the capital.

In May, winds from a strong storm blew the church's outdoor 1.2-metre-tall metal cross backward at dangerous angle, and a church committee swept in to have it safely removed.

"It's kind of naked without it," joked parish manager Stephen Downey. "We took it down, and that's when it all began."

Stu Mills/CBC

'It is my love'

But the story really started 25 years ago in a town called Al-Qaryatayn, about 100 kilometres southeast of Homs in western Syria.

Young Sohail Khazaal's favourite uncle was a popular local welder there, and Khazaal was infatuated with the crackling blue light that spilled out of the workshop.

Khazaal mastered metal inert gas welding, tungsten inert gas welding and arc-welding techniques in Syria and in neighbouring Lebanon, where he designed and built custom doors, railings, window treatments and truck racks.

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"I have been in this job 23 years, it is my love," he said, smiling beneath a raised welding mask in the workshop where he put the finishing touches on the replacement church cross.

When the war brought trouble to his country, St. George's in Ottawa answered his family's call.

Now, he's trying to return the favour.

New cross being installed later this month

Someone at St. George's remembered Khazaal was a welder from the family's refugee sponsorship paperwork. Since March, he's been working full time with a local welding shop, designing and building railings and other metal work.

When the damaged cross was pulled off the roof, Khazaal analyzed it and discovered that 90 years of rain and winter had rendered it irreparable.

"It's very thin but I can make a new one, if you want," the newcomer recalled telling a relieved church committee member when she approached him with the question.

Stu Mills/CBC

Khazaal spent about three days fabricating a heavier steel cross of the same design and dimensions. He expects it to outlast the original after it's installed by roof workers later this month.

The parish paid for the supplies, but Khazaal has refused to take money for the labour. He said he's glad to be able to give something back.

"I was very happy for that because they helped us a lot — for many things," he said.