Q You’re a physician. Why are you compelled to write?
A For the last decade, I’ve been writing regularly for my own benefit, my own pleasure and my own sanity. At the refugee clinic, so much that was moving or perplexing happened, and I didn’t want to forget it. So I’d take 10 or 15 minutes at the end of each day and write what had been memorable. I never thought I’d ever do anything with it. I just wrote to memorialize the patient and my own experience.
Q I was both horrified and fascinated by the passage where you describe, with compassion, your examination of a Chinese refugee for evidence of torture, to help assess his refugee claim. You report that your friends and acquaintances often want to hear the grisly details of your work.
A To be honest, when I first started at the clinic, the first few times I heard these stories, I was fascinated by them. Voyeuristic, even. I couldn’t believe the details and the plot. That was my initial reaction. That passed quickly. Now, when people at dinner parties want to hear these awful stories, I get it, but it enrages me. It’s so upsetting to me. I don’t fault them for it. It’s their own naiveté that allows them to ask a question like that.
Q In the book, you’re careful to exclude details that would feed that voyeurism. Why are Canadians so interested in foreign gore?
Q Is there one who stands out for you?
Q I loved your story about the Vancouver family who rented a small apartment over their garage to a refugee family but
Q In your book, you call out the “helpers” — those who dive in to help refugees, but the helping often comes with some ugly behaviours and expectations.
A When the helpers expect the helped to have a permanent attitude of gratitude, that’s a problem. I did mention the problematic helper dynamic in a workshop once with lots of church sponsors — and I felt quite bad for doing it! I was genuinely moved by how many people wanted to help the Syrians, and I didn’t want to dismiss that or be critical. I was surprised: it was the most well-received part of the whole presentation. They were really into the group discussion. There’s so much benefit in even having the helper-helped dynamic brought to your attention.
Q What’s been useful to you, in sorting out the helper role?
Q Something I admired in your book is your brave chapter about racism, including your own. You describe your shock at yourself for feeling invaded when an Iranian-Canadian neighbour moved into Deep Cove, your white, wealthy
Q Since you wrote this book, the clinic has shut down. The government funding ended. What’s been lost in the closure?
Q What is a helpful thing that people can do to promote greater support for refugees?
A One thing I saw so often in patients was loneliness. It’s heartbreaking. I wish the general public realized the huge power of just reaching out in small ways to people who are new to Canada in spite of the cultural barriers and the language barriers.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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