Thursday, February 8, 2018

BEYOND FACEBOOK: Reality Refugees

I had arrived a bit too early to meet the family I was going to be introduced to by the most marvelous Amanda Cliff who is Wonder Woman to many many people in her efforts to help Syrian refugees. She is well-loved indeed by the people she is helping and they are affectionate and happy to see her. I am to meet the family to teach them English. I haven’t got a bloody clue how to teach someone English but I’m sure I only have to do the ABCs. Surely I can do that? I am grateful that Amanda has set up a FB page for us volunteers because the majority of them have experience at this. I have some trepidation in my ability to do this. But nothing ventured, nothing gained. And they need me. 

Because I was early I sat in the car and watched the world go by. Early evening, the day after a snow storm, the streets of Hull are piled high with snowbanks and the roads themselves are slick still with snow. The streetlights have come on casting amber on the ground and I am mostly impressed by the number of people coming and going. Even when I leave later in the evening it is busy. The side street bustles with people dressed up against the weather in all sorts of outfits. There are children everywhere. It is the kind of street where you have to drive very slowly and carefully for little bundled things toddle along behind parents just below eye level. I feel a certain irony really thinking of urban planners and walkable communities in places when no one really wanders about as they do here despite the conditions.

The family is one of many Syrian refugees living in apartment buildings in the Hull sector of Gatineau. The building is tidy but older. The father of the family is an extroverted sort with a wide smile and is quite handsome. His wife is beautiful with astounding almond eyes. She is lush with pregnancy and is due next month with her second son. There is an 8-year-old, 9-year-old and 10 year old. The children are beautiful not just because they are children as all children are, but because they have wide dark eyes and the kinds of smiles that spread across their whole face and they are polite, dutiful and affectionate. I am of course immediately in love with the children. Who couldn’t be? And they are beyond clever. In a bit I begin to wonder who is going to teach who in this scenario. The young son is particularly adept at two languages and has already mastered some English. He amazes me this child for with all his intelligence he is sweetly respectful and not at all boastful.

This family spent only a year as refugees in Turkey before arriving in Canada unlike many who have spent many years in limbo. There are some horror stories there that would break your heart which Amanda well knows. This family’s neighbours have had relatives shot in the back of the head, or starved to death, tortured. It is not something we can even understand. With this family I am not certain of the stories yet. It is enough they have had to drop all that they had to start a new life in a foreign land with winter. Even we can’t handle winter but they seem to manage it with a certain bravado.

This family would have been one of the first waves of immigrants brought in. They have been here a year. In his original work the father was a mechanic in Syria and he is determined to learn English. As an immigrant to Quebec the language he is being taught is French and is supplemented and expected by the government. The man however finds so very much of what he has to do as a mechanic demands knowledge of English. He has registered with an English-language teaching program on the internet. I am to teach the whole family which has varying degrees of knowledge. I am chagrined to realize that is going to involve much more than ABCs. They already pretty much know that. It is apparent that the level is much higher. It is going to take some innovative ideas for me. This is not one of those, “oh I think I’ll learn another language” deals. It is a man’s livelihood and the welfare of his family.

The small impeccable apartment for the five, soon to be six family members is furnished with donations that Amanda has garnered for the refugees. The woman works wonders with a van and a prayer. She laments her cluttered place as it is piled with donations awaiting distribution. She has found sometimes she will give something to one family and it will make the rounds from family to family. They, unlike most north americans, will share things with each other in a kind of common welfare situation. They find family with each other while their own families (which in Syria were close knit indeed) have been spread across the globe. It is a hard thing for them. Amanda, a bright beautiful woman who worked in the government and is now retired says it was the picture of the child on the beach that started her on her mission to help the refugees. She is attending to over 60 families at the moment. It is no easy task.

I don’t know what my Apple password is. This becomes an issue because I need to download an app apparently to translate arabic to English and vice-versa. Fortunately I can use theirs until I figure out what I’m doing. The world changes. It is the very technology I often complain about that has allowed this family to learn languages and speak to family members around the world. It is an invaluable tool for anyone learning a language. I wonder then, sadly, if indeed human to human contact in terms of learning is even necessary anymore. But I know that the turn of a head, a gesture, a smile can infer meaning no machine could. I believe this. Otherwise why are any of us volunteers bothering?

I’m looking forward to teaching this family. We were fed fruit and special coffee off trays. The young ones explaining something to me about an extra plate which I didn’t quite understand. Next time maybe. The baby is due at the end of March and he has a name already. It is not a family name but just a name they picked that they liked. The wife retains her maiden name, much like Quebec and she is a proud mother of her well-behaved children and is a well-loved wife. I ask them if they would like to return to Syria if it is ever fixed. They say yes, if it is fixed, but they say it will never be fixed and it is a new world and a new life to be made here in this good country. I sense only some sadness from the mother but not so much from the father. He is trying to learn English and that is his frustration. When we leave, the young girls hug Amanda and myself and we shake hands with the father and son. Amanda asks me if I am okay with them and I am more concerned that they are okay with me. They have been at this for a very long time. And I am only new to it all.

I got lost getting home. Don’t know how I managed that. Driving though the back streets of Hull I was thoughtful about life and about this new child to be born to this family. A Canadian child ripe with the future and how we must protect what we have to give him. I am also proud of my country, that we give men and women and children what we have to give them. With this group of immigrants there is no way we can go wrong. I don’t believe so. They will make us a stronger and better place to live. It is however sad to see how hard it is for them. As it was I suppose for the immigrants before us. It is not the kind of hardness that our pioneer ancestors went through, but a very different one. Certainly no less difficult in its way. The labour of our pioneer ancestors was physical. For this group, the labour demands huge intellectual and emotional fortitude. The likes of which most of us will not need to know or experience. There is no easy path for this group.

Like Amanda, I grew tired and sad watching news stories. It is about trying to actually help instead of watch. I hope I can do that. We will see.

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