I can’t imagine Canadians being oblivious to the Syrian refugee crisis. I am inundated with images, stories — and of memories. Seeing desperate people in leaky boats reminds me of the Boat People from Vietnam. All those years ago, some eventually settled in Yellowknife, N.W.T., and I was privileged to know them there.
In the 1970s, more than one million people from war-ravaged Vietnam fled to countries like ours. They, like the Syrians and others worldwide, risked everything to escape. Initially, Canada admitted 5,600 refugees, but a loud public outcry made the government rethink their limited number. Civic groups, government and churches worked together, and by 1985, we had welcomed 110,000 — even during an economic downturn.
In the early 1990s, I was part of a large team of Calgarians who cared for a sole refugee, who, we believed, should have been allowed to stay here, where his family already lived. Rather than face deportation to El Salvador and likely death, he took sanctuary in the Calgary Unitarian Church and today remains a productive member of society. Canada is a country woven of stories such as these.
In my own veins runs the blood of ancestors who fled Irish potato famines and of one of the 100,000 British Home Children brought here as servants between 1870 ad 1930. Many of us can relate to the search for safety, wellbeing and new opportunities. Globe and Mail columnist Elizabeth Renzetti, who is the child of Holocaust survivors, reminded readers on Sept. 4 that the small initial outlay of money and resources to assist refugees when they first come here is repaid many times over by their contributions as citizens later.
Last week, Hillhurst United Church in Calgary hosted an inter-faith vigil for Syrian refugees. Along with 75 others, my husband and I lit candles, heard stories of others who had come as refugees and prayed. We also began imagining how our congregation might welcome a Syrian family.
Cheryle Chagnon-Greyeyes and Chantal Stormsong Chagnon are originally from Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, Sask. In Calgary, they are well known performers whose mandate is to build bridges and share culture. At the start of the vigil, they prayed in Cree, sang in Ojibway and infused us with encouragement. This was humbling to me. And as I listened, I was carried away to stories of earliest contact — Vikings in Newfoundland 1,000 years ago and Jacques Cartier sailing up the St. Lawrence River five centuries later.
I then glanced around the sanctuary. We or our ancestors, it seemed, had come to Canada from everywhere: Africa, Philippines, India, Middle East, Europe and Turtle Island. Gordon Light once wrote, “Draw the circle wide, draw it wider still. Let this be our song: no one stands alone.” This moment in our history is a good one to sing that hymn — and live it.
But with all the pressure on our attention, finances, political will and energy, I hope that we won't lose sight of our roots. I hope that we'll remember that the first people of this land were — and are — welcoming to newcomers. I pray that we won't forget the members of these communities who have pressing, life-and-death needs that are still unmet and Treaty obligations that remain unfulfilled. Our circle of compassion must be drawn wide indeed.
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