I often get asked about my involvement sponsoring a Syrian refugee family here in Canada.
Part of my interest is simply a human response – supporting parents and children fleeing a hideous war seems like the right thing to do.
But there are other things that motivate me too. I lived and worked in Cambodia for nearly six years and experienced to some degree what being an “other” and an “outsider” is like. Not only did I look visibly different, but I also made all sorts of linguistic and cultural blunders. And yet, I was graciously welcomed and received by Cambodians. So, I have been in that place – a newcomer fumbling and bumbling my way awkwardly and uncomfortably in a different country.
When my husband and I left Cambodia in 2014, we took the opportunity to travel with our two daughters (we now have three daughters!) for three months on our way back to Canada. At the time we had no idea that the steps we were taking were significant. But as we explored Jordan, Turkey and the Balkan Peninsula we were actually walking the path that so many refugees are taking today in hopes of a better life.
As the news hit almost every day a few months ago of overcrowded trains in Greece and bodies of toddlers washing up on Turkish beaches, I had flashbacks to our travels (in addition to the gut wrenching horror everyone felt seeing those images). We were there. We walked the same streets. We caught the same busses. We slept on the same trains.
The refugee story is now linked to our own. I have literally walked parts of their passage with my two young children in tow. Ours was a journey of self-discovery and adventure. Protected by our Canadian passports and the fact that we were tourists, not fleeing a war-torn country, we reveled in each new experience. We didn’t pay smugglers. We weren’t robbed by angry gangs. We were welcomed wholeheartedly as special guests.
My oldest daughter turned three in Sarajevo, Bosnia, surrounded by pock-marked and battle scarred buildings, vivid reminders of the war in the 90s. We were powerfully aware of the long term devastation of conflict. A few weeks later, my youngest turned one in Skopje, Macedonia. We sat in the courtyard of our hostel with a piece of cake and a candle to celebrate her birthday. The next day we got on the train for Thesseloniki, Greece, the very same train which would transport hundreds of Syrian refugees a year later in the opposite direction.
After three months on the road we flew from Athens to the UK and boarded the Queen Mary 2 in Southampton. Then we crossed the Atlantic like our great and great-great-grandparents did in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
First we walked the same path refugees are taking today. Then we retraced the steps our family members took along with millions of other Europeans when they came to North America in one of the largest waves of migration in history.
The Latin root of the word “compassion” means “co-suffering.” It goes further than empathy. We internalize another person’s story. We imagine ourselves walking in their shoes. We share the sorrow, the anguish, the misery, and then help alleviate it.
I am drawn to the Syrian crisis and want to respond by supporting a family because our stories mirror each other, because our stories are connected. I am a descendent of immigrants who wanted a better life. I have been welcomed warmly by Cambodians even in my ‘otherness’. And, from my position of privilege, I have unwittingly traced the steps many refugees have taken from the Middle East to Europe. Now, I want to help ease the suffering.
The other day, the family we are sponsoring finally arrived in Canada. After years of turmoil and waiting in suspense, they landed in their new home. We celebrated with them – first at the airport and then at their extended family’s home with a tremendous Syrian feast.
My nine-month old daughter was whisked away by the older girls and boys who knew exactly what to do to calm her and play with her. My eldest daughter gave the family’s 15-month old daughter a big hug and a kiss while my two-year-old put on a show running around the room and tapping people’s knees.
It struck me in that moment that this is how the world is changed.
When we respond to suffering, not out of guilt, but out of our shared humanity; when we allow our experiences to propel us forward in love and compassion; when we share coffees and meals and enter new spaces that aren’t entirely comfortable…we change, others change, the world changes.
But we have to remind ourselves constantly that we are not saviours. We are simply a tiny sign, among thousands of others, that love is possible, that the world is not condemned to a struggle between oppressors and oppressed, that class and racial warfare is not inevitable. We are a sign that there is hope… Jean Vanier