5 Syrian families didn't know what they'd find in Canada. They found the perfect town.

On Sept. 21, 2016, after enduring the terror of the Syrian civil war, a year living as refugees in Turkey, and almost 27 hours of flying, Samah Motlaq, her husband, Talal, and their two young children touched down in the small lakeside community of Gander, Newfoundland, on the east coast of Canada.

An iceberg floats off the coast of Newfoundland. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.


Motlaq was unsure about leaving Turkey. She liked her life there, and her kids were finally settled after years of uncertainty and upheaval. But their family had friends in Gander who urged them to join them halfway across the world.

"Honestly, all I knew about Canada is that it is very cold in winter but [that] the opportunities for living [were] much better than in Turkey," Motlaq says.

Still, she wasn't sure how welcome her family would be in a small town and foreign culture in a country she'd never visited. Little did she know that welcoming newcomers had long been Gander's brand.

15 years earlier, Gander played host when nearly 7,000 airline passengers were grounded there on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

When American airspace was closed following the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., 38 planes were forced to land in the town, whose airport is home to one of the largest runways in the area — a legacy left over from an era when aircraft had to make frequent refueling stopovers on their way to and from Europe.

With nothing but their hand luggage, travelers from six continents stepped off their planes to find food, clothes, shelter, and community waiting for them.

Stranded passengers from around the world email their relatives from Gander Academy on 9/11. Photo by Scott Cook/The Canadian Press.

Since opening its doors that day, the town has been profiled in countless articles, a Tom Brokaw documentary, and even a new Broadway musical — "Come From Away."

In 2016, Gander opened its doors once again.

For many residents who helped the stranded passengers in 2001 by preparing meals, donating the contents of their closets, and taking them into their homes, welcoming refugees displaced by war in Syria was a no-brainer.

"I really think that this has been the most rewarding experience of volunteering since 9/11," says Diane Davis, a retired elementary school teacher in Gander and a member of the committee coordinating the resettlement.

Davis, who along with several of her fellow teachers inspired a character in "Come From Away," helped launch the committee in early 2016 with the goal of bringing five Syrian families to Gander.

13-year-old Wiaam Maymouna watches the performance of "Come From Away" in Gander on Oct 29. Photo by Diane Davis.

In early June 2016, the committee received notice that the first family would be arriving in just two weeks. Thus began a mad dash to ensure the houses were fully furnished and stocked with food before they arrived.

"We felt as if we are at home from the very first moment," Motlaq says. Hers was the fourth family to arrive in town — with a fifth still on its way.

The members of the committee were used to scrambling. Just about every person on it, Davis explains, had been involved with housing, feeding, and transporting the "plane people" on 9/11.

"One day after the attack, an old lady came to me at my workplace at Walmart and she hugged me and said, 'Do not be afraid. We love you and we are with you guys.'"
— Samah Motlaq

"I’ve been able to explain to [the refugee families], 'You’re not the first people we’ve helped,'" she says. "'This is the way a community works together. These are the kinds of things we take care of.'"

Resettling the families in Gander, Davis explains, is also an opportunity to revitalize the town, which has evolved into a "retirement community" in recent years.

"We’re a province that has an aging demographic," she says. "We’re a province that has a declining population. We’re a community that has employment and housing. We’ve got a good, strong school system here."

As a former educator who lives across the street from her old classroom, Davis has taken the lead in getting the refugee children, who range in age from 2 to 13, adjusted to their new school.

"I retired in June on a Friday and the first family arrived on a Tuesday. So retirement was three days long," Davis says.

New Gander residents Iman Halawany and her husband, Samer Maymouna, watch their son Abed in his kindergarten Christmas program. Photo by Diane Davis. Photos used with permission.

Her role involves everything from translation to registering the kids for classes to liaising with the parents in case of emergency. When one boy was getting in frequent trouble because he couldn't ask for help, Davis wrote her phone number in his notebook and, with the help of Google Translate, explained that whenever he needed anything, he could show it to his teacher.

For Motlaq, who was born in Palmyra, Syria's cultural capital, living in quiet Gander has been an adjustment from big-city life.

While she misses the activity, she is grateful for her new job at Walmart and the safety, quiet, and fellowship of the community — particularly after a deadly shooting that claimed six lives at the Islamic Cultural Center in Quebec.

"One day after the attack, an old lady came to me at my workplace at Walmart and she hugged me and said, 'Do not be afraid. We love you and we are with you guys,'" Motlaq says.

The conversation left her with a profound affection for her new adopted home. "I knew that day that Canada represents humanity and equality regardless religion or race."

Five months before "Come From Away" opened on Broadway, the cast and crew flew to Newfoundland for two VIP performances in the Gander hockey rink.

Diane Davis and partner Leo McKenna at the premiere of "Come From Away" in New York City. Photo by Diane Davis.

Before the show arrived, Davis asked Irene Sankoff, the musical's co-writer, for tickets for the eight Syrian adults. The production responded with tickets for all four families, including the children.

Explaining the concept of the performance to the newcomers, many of whom have limited English skills, was a challenge at first.  

"They weren’t sure if they were going to see a hockey game," Davis says. After showing them pieces of the NBC documentary, they began to connect their experience to that of the "plane people" 15 years earlier.

The group also met the cast and creative team of the show — many of whom continue to support the resettlement effort with financial aid and, this past December, a trove of Christmas gifts.

"Santa Claus brought [the kids] sleds this year," Davis says. "That may or may not have come via New York."

For the families just finding their footing, the support has been invaluable. But for those who do speak English, like Motlaq and her husband, it was the performance, with its message of finding community amid chaos, that resonated the loudest.

"It is similar to our story," she says.

"We came from away too."  

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Judy Vaughan has spent most of her life helping other women, first as the director of House of Ruth, a safe haven for homeless families in East Los Angeles, and later as the Project Coordinator for Women for Guatemala, a solidarity organization committed to raising awareness about human rights abuses.

But in 1996, she decided to take things a step further. A house became available in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and she was offered the opportunity to use it to help other women and children. So, in partnership with a group of 13 people who she knew from her years of activism, she decided to make it a transitional residence program for homeless women and their children. They called the program Alexandria House.

"I had learned from House of Ruth that families who are homeless are often isolated from the surrounding community," Judy says. "So we decided that as part of our mission, we would also be a neighborhood center and offer a number of resources and programs, including an after-school program and ESL classes."

She also decided that, unlike many other shelters in Los Angeles, she would accept mothers with their teenage boys.

"There are very few in Los Angeles [that do] due to what are considered liability issues," Judy explains. "Given the fact that there are (conservatively) 56,000 homeless people and only about 11,000 shelter beds on any one night, agencies can be selective on who they take."

Their Board of Directors had already determined that they should take families that would have difficulties finding a place. Some of these challenges include families with more than two children, immigrant families without legal documents, moms who are pregnant with other small children, families with a member who has a disability [and] families with service dogs.

"Being separated from your son or sons, especially in the early teen years, just adds to the stress that moms who are unhoused are already experiencing," Judy says.

"We were determined to offer women with teenage boys another choice."

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan

Alexandria House also doesn't kick boys out when they turn 18. For example, Judy says they currently have a mom with two daughters (21 and 2) and a son who just turned 18. The family had struggled to find a shelter that would take them all together, and once they found Alexandria House, they worried the boy would be kicked out on his 18th birthday. But, says Judy, "we were not going to ask him to leave because of his age."

Homelessness is a big issue in Los Angeles. "[It] is considered the homeless capital of the United States," Judy says. "The numbers have not changed significantly since 1984 when I was working at the House of Ruth." The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), over 66,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area were experiencing homelessness in 2020, representing a rise of 12.7% compared with the year before.

Each woman who comes to Alexandria House has her own unique story, but some common reasons for ending up homeless include fleeing from a domestic violence or human trafficking situation, aging out of foster care and having no place to go, being priced out of an apartment, losing a job, or experiencing a family emergency with no 'cushion' to pay the rent.

"Homelessness is not a definition; it is a situation that a person finds themselves in, and in fact, it can happen to almost anyone. There are many practices and policies that make it almost impossible to break out of poverty and move out of homelessness."

And that's why Alexandria House exists: to help them move out of it. How long that takes depends on the woman, but according to Judy, families stay an average of 10 months. During that time, the women meet with support staff to identify needs and goals and put a plan of action in place.

A number of services are provided, including free childcare, programs and mentoring for school-age children, free mental health counseling, financial literacy classes and a savings program. They have also started Step Up Sisterhood LA, an entrepreneurial program to support women's dreams of starting their own businesses. "We serve as a support system for as long as a family would like," Judy says, even after they have moved on.

And so far, the program is a resounding success.

92 percent of the 200 families who stayed at Alexandria House have found financial stability and permanent housing — not becoming homeless again.

Since founding Alexandria House 25 years ago, Judy has never lost sight of her mission to join with others and create a vision of a more just society and community. That is why she is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year — and the donation she receives as a nominee will go to Alexandria House and will help grow the new Start-up Sisterhood LA program.

"Alexandria House is such an important part of my life," says Judy. "It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families. I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity."

via Wikimedia Commons and Goalsetter

America's ethnic wealth gap is a multi-faceted problem that would take dramatic action, on multiple fronts, to overcome. One of the ways to help communities improve their economic well-being is through financial literacy.

Investopedia says there are five primary sources of financial education—families, high school, college, employers, and the military — and that education and household income are two of the biggest factors in predicting whether someone has a high level of financial literacy.

New Orleans Saints safety, two-time Super Bowl Champion, and social justice activist Malcolm Jenkins and The Malcolm Jenkins Foundation hope to help bridge the wealth gap by teaching students about investing at a young age.

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2020 was difficult (to say the least). The year was full of life changes, losses, and lessons as we learned to navigate the "new normal." You may have questions about what the changes and challenges of 2020 mean for your taxes. That's where TurboTax Live comes in, making it easy to connect with real tax experts to help with your taxes – or even do them for you, start to finish.

Not only has TurboTax Live helped millions of people get their taxes done right, but this year they've also celebrated people who uplifted their communities during a difficult time by surprising them with "little lifts" to help out even more.

Here are a few of their stories:


Julz, hairdresser and salon owner

"As a hairdresser and salon owner, 2020 was extremely challenging," says Julz. "Being a hairdresser has historically been a recession-proof industry, but we've never faced global shut down due to health risk, or pandemic, not in my lifetime. And for the first time, hairdressers didn't have job security."

Julz had to shut down her salon and go on unemployment benefits for the first time. She also had to figure out how she was going to support herself, her staff and her business during this difficult time. But many other beauty industry professionals didn't have access to the resources they needed, so Julz decided to help.

"My business partner and I began teaching basic financial literacy to other beauty industry professionals," she says. "Transitioning our business from behind the chair to an online academy was a challenge we tackled head-on so that we could move hairdressers into this new space of education, and create a more accessible curriculum to better serve our industry.

Julz connected with a TurboTax Live expert who helped her understand how unemployment affected her taxes and gave her guidance on filing quarterly estimated taxes for her small business. "I was terrified to sit at a computer and tackle this mess of receipts," Julz says, so "it was great to have some virtual handholding to walk me through each question."

In addition to giving Julz the personalized tax advice she needed, TurboTax Live surprised her with a "little lift" that empowered her to help even more beauty professionals. "When my tax expert Diana surprised me with a little lift, I was moved to tears," says Julz. "With that little lift, I was able to establish a scholarship fund to help get other hairdressers the education they deserve."


Alana, new mom

Alana welcomed her first child in 2020. "I think my biggest challenge was figuring out how to be a mom, with no guidance," she says. "My original plan was to have my mom by my side, teaching me the ropes, but because of COVID, she wasn't able to come out here."

She was also without a job for most of 2020 and struggled to find something new.

So, Alana took it as a sign: she decided to launch her own business so she could support her new baby, and that's exactly what she did. She started a feel-good company that specializes in creating affirmation card decks — and she's currently in the process of starting a second, video-editing business.

TurboTax Live answered Alana's questions about her taxes and gave her some much-needed advice as she prepared to launch her businesses. Thanks to their "little lift," they provided her with a little emotional support too.

"I got my mom a plane ticket to finally [have her] meet [my daughter] for her first birthday," Alana says. "I was also able to get a new computer," which helped her invest in her new business and work on her video editing skills. "It's helped my family and me so much," she says.


Michael, science teacher

When schools shut down across the country last year, Michael had to learn how to adapt to a virtual classroom.

"As a teacher, I had to completely revamp everything," he says, so that he could keep his students engaged while teaching online. "At the beginning, it was a nightmare because I had no idea. I had to go from A-Z within a couple of weeks."

Michael's TurboTax Live expert answered his questions about how working from home affected his taxes and helped him uncover surprising tax deductions. To top it all off, his expert surprised him with brand new science equipment and supplies, which allowed him to create an entire line of classes on YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook. "Now I can truly potentially reach millions of children with my lessons," he says. "I would never have taken that leap if not for the little lift from TurboTax Live."



Ricky, motivational youth speaker

As a motivational speaker, Ricky was used to doing his job in person, but, he says, "when COVID-19 hit, it altered my ability to travel and visit schools in person [because] schools moved to fully virtual or hybrid models."

He knew he had to pivot — so he began offering small virtual group workshops for student leadership groups at middle and high schools.

"This allowed me to work with student leaders to plan how they would continue making a positive impact on their school community," he says. He wasn't sure how being remote would affect his taxes, but TurboTax Live Self-Employed gave him the advice and answers that he needed to keep more money in his pocket at tax time — and the little lift he received from them has helped him serve even more students.

"[It] has been a major blessing," he says "There will be multiple schools and student groups from across the country that I can hold leadership workshops with to empower them with the tools to be inspirational leaders in their school, community, and world."

Plus, he says, it was great knowing he had an expert to help him figure out how being remote affected his taxes. "I felt confident and assured in the process of filing my taxes knowing I had an expert working with me, says Ricky. "There were things my expert knew that I would not have considered when filing on my own."

Filing your taxes doesn't have to be intimidating, especially after a year like 2020. TurboTax Live experts can give you the "little lift" you need to get your taxes done. File with the help of an expert or let an expert file for you! Go to TurboTax Live to get started.