Thursday, February 22, 2018


BEYOND FACEBOOK Reality Refugees: The helpers and the helped

I often wonder now why I am a hermit for the most part. Whenever I’ve wandered out into this world off of Facebook I meet some amazing people. Amanda Cliff who has spearheaded help for Syrian refugees continues to amaze me. While I bumble along with my now beloved family, she has managed and cared for approximately 60 refugee families for a few years now. And she is humble with the work she does in a way that makes everyone who meets her, a better person for knowing her. She is so humble she will squirm for me having said that. So squirm. :) :) It is what I believe.

This night we had the very first meeting of the volunteers who are teaching these families and I met some more remarkably good people. Clearly the woman who arranged the meeting Susan Chabot is brilliant, helpful and a prodigious resource of ideas and philosophies and understanding. She too has a way of humbling us with her insight and she’s a godsend to us all. I might have driven her crazy with questions. I’m turning into one of those little old ladies that people cross the street to avoid because I talk too much. She had every answer and I’ve never been so relieved.

The old way of learning a language is no longer how it is approached. I found out what I’ve done wrong and what I’ve also done right. Some things are instinctual I think. Other things are going to be a concerted effort. I believe for the most part that the families will teach us how to teach them. They are likely being more patient with us than we are with them. 

The other volunteers are lovely. I felt an immediate comfort in their shared experience. One thing that is already coming of these meetings with other volunteers is the reality of these newcomers’ lives. The real needs becoming clearer when shared experiences happen but the greatest difficulty is ensuring we do not define the problems from our own experiences in the western world and from our own culture. And very importantly we cannot define solutions to our perceptions at this point. We may see a need that they do not see as important and vice versa. It is a fine balancing act requiring a great deal of ruthless self-exploration of cultural norms. Do the women need to be more assertive?  That is my need perhaps. It is not their need. Yet each family seems to be different in what expectations are. How do we teach the children and the parents all at various levels? We focus on the parents because the children will learn English simply by living here. Don’t overwhelm them. Celebrate the small victories. It is a matter of time and patience. When there is a quiet time, it’s likely because they are thinking. Give them time to think. There are no awkward pauses necessarily. Have a purpose to the class. Only speak when necessary or when modeling language. Use hand movements and visuals. When you speak use full sentences. Don’t use idioms. Get them talking. We talk 20% of the time. They must do the other 80%. (That's no small feat for someone like me I might add.) These are all things I’ve learned from our meeting and from the wonderful Susan Chabot. I feel stronger for the experience now and look forward to our next meeting.

My family is still expecting. She is over the 9-month period and is due for an ultrasound on Tuesday. They may have to induce. It’s amazing how being relatively new to English these complex ideas are explained. It’s really unfathomable. It’s the difference of being in person that does it I think. There isn’t a computer program in the world that can simulate hand gestures, facial expressions and little drawings and the odd word or two to create such a symbiotic understanding. It would be an interesting study.

We had quite a laugh together our family. The husband explained that he had received a phone call from the government about how his French language training was going. He has been absent for a while. He said to them “I register. I three month. I run.” It is funny because I said, “You know the verb to run!” His tortuous ordeal learning French is painful to hear about. Refugees in Quebec are given benefits up to two years with the stipulation that they learn French. After that they are expected to find work. Imagine the nightmare “that” presents if language training is not going well and you have 3 children, one on the way and a wife to support. Yet the husband is resolute in learning English. He is beginning at this point to correct me. I don’t have a handle on the number of different avenues he is accessing to learn the language. He is using the computer. I explained that there is a hard “g” and a soft “g” and he explained that it is a soft “g” if it is followed by “e.” I dunno I said. I don’t think so. I have to look that up. I was a bit disconcerted being corrected at this point. That also made me laugh.

The wife is getting that “oh lets get this over with” look to pregnancy. She grimaces slightly then smiles and laughs when the baby kicks. He doesn’t want to come out, she explains. We all chuckle communally examining her great girth. The children are rambunctious. They have the apartment door open and are racing up and down the stairwell. The father keeps a watch on them from the corner of his eye. They always serve me coffee. This time I received both coffee and tea at one point. It is always sweet and hot. She had baked some lovely muffins and a cake for my last visit. She loves to bake. I’m thinking of doing a recipe with her so she can learn measurements. There is so much to learn.

Outside the parking lot is no longer icy from a deluge of rain. On the way to the car I see how bright the stars are. I feel the immensity of it all, the universe and the odd circumstances of me being where I was at that very moment doing what I was doing. It is nothing and it is everything. A gaggle of teenagers pass me. They are on their cellphones. They do not see me. But I see them. I wish they would look up and see the stars. Just for an instant. The stars watch these teenagers’ destiny from their perches in the dark. I look over to the window where the family has settled in behind the dark curtain and I think of little Rohan who will soon be born.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

BEYOND FACEBOOK Reality Refugee 3

A part of me dreaded visiting my refugee family this last visit because I’d left them inadvertently in the conditional past of regular verbs without having explained the simple past. True troopers, they took it relatively well. The past is never easy I tried to explain. We’ve concluded that a simple “ed” at the end of the verb is enough for the moment. Apparently they might not be interested in learning to read Shakespeare in its original text. That is most definitely something I must remember for the next family.

The landlord of the buildings has done very little if anything to handle the absolute treachery of sheer ice on the driveways and walkways of these buildings. I wonder if I should get their name and start raising hell but I remind myself that I am not here to solve everything. I think about this mother 9 months pregnant walking on that ice. I'm hoping that it was just an off-chance day and that it will be fixed next visit. The mother is riotously plump with her due date. I figure it should have been yesterday by the looks of it but there are a few more days to go. She is, and the children are, giggly and yet reverent with the imminent arrival of the family’s first Canadian child. It really is fun to anticipate this new child in the world. My family is under strict orders to call me and say “baby” and I’ll be there. That is all they have to remember in the flurry of activity it will no doubt bring.

It is a different thing to sit at a table with a family, particularly the parents, who are so keen on learning. It is written in their eyes, in their manners, in their effort. I wish I could wave a magic wand and it would be instantaneously understood but I can’t. In his effort to learn English because French proved utterly impossible for him, the father had registered with an on-line English program. I don’t know what it is but I know it is likely more than they could afford but that is what desperation can do. It is reality, not wishful thinking. Not ‘political will’ but reality.

Many of the refugee’s wives do not know how to read or write in their own language I am told. So learning to read and write is a real issue on different fronts. I’ve not run into that here. The father, who is a born teacher, spent five minutes explaining what a distributor in a car was and by gum, I think this Syrian refugee from far across the ocean explained something I never did understand. The translation program on the computer is a little dicey; reading fire sticks for spark plugs. He also wrote a word. It made me laugh. Their language is infinitely precise with tiny little nuances in how a character is formed. To me it seems it is both pictorial and written. It is beyond my feeble or even less than feeble efforts to understand. It just makes me laugh. I also am having a difficult time pronouncing their names. But that will eventually arrive. Repetition. It is all repetition.

Driving home I think about where I live. In this privileged community there is great generosity and it is this generosity that is making the difference in many lives. There is, also, unfortunately a poignant if not disturbing reality that not more than 10 minutes, possibly less down the highway is a very different world. I am asked why I volunteer here instead of the good charitable and/or non-profit organizations in my fair community and I thought long and hard about it. I decided I needed to go most definitely where I am needed, utterly needed if not desperately needed. This is not a group of people who chose to live in a foreign country without language skills. This is not something they did or didn’t do for whatever reason. It was politics and war. They were ripped from their lives and dumped here. They are bewildered and contending not just with language, but bureaucracy and technology. And winter. It is a world of Kafka. They are also not a group who are necessarily familiar with poverty and familial isolation and societal prejudice. I imagine they are learning quickly.

I am far from an educated woman on this matter but I believe we need to accept differences in a healthy way. If we can stop the fear and prejudice here at this point, with this family, with these children with this new child, we can possibly find peace side by side. Yes. This family is culturally different in many ways but they are also intelligent, extremely hardworking, patient, considerate and polite. We cannot necessarily expect such a strong culture to suddenly assimilate to our values. And what are those values anyway? Respect of differences is critical now.

I remarked to myself that I was making headway with the parents but the children are still watching French television. I think about whether I even remotely want to teach them English. What have we got to offer these children culturally? Justin Bieber? Video games? It is a pipedream to suggest they will not gravitate to whatever their peers are into. Is our current cultural reality any kind of shining example? I don’t know. It could be me being darkly judgmental and probably seriously ignorant on the matter however I feel a small pang of regret that a certain innocence will be lost.

 A few have told me that I am naïve. That this group will soon take over the country just through population growth alone. Okay. So what if they do? I am not at all concerned about it. It is after all, why they are here partly. If we have shown tolerance and acceptance it can work both ways. I believe it is possible that they have more to teach us than we have to teach them. But I avoid politics for I am not here for that. What we have to strive for is that respect of differences. Beyond everything. To each his own. It is what Canada is about. Isn’t it? If that is naïve I’m sure I’m in good company.

As I lock the car and wander into my cozy home overlooking the river I think about the hard times I’ve had in life and I think, at least I did not have this nightmare of war and displacement and cultural divides. Knock on wood. We must be grateful always for not just what we have but what we don’t have.






Wednesday, February 14, 2018

BEYOND FACEBOOK: Reality Refugee 2


I pick up a car-seat and stroller and books at Amanda’s house to deliver to “my” family. Amanda and her husband live in a small warm home tucked into the forest on a windy hilly street in Chelsea. She is always on the go that woman. Never a breath to take. Never a moment knowing where she’ll be next. She tells me I’m going to love my family and comforts my fears over never having done this before in my entire life that I recall. She assures me I’ll be fine. She’s a dear. 

I feel like Santa Claus coming with books and baby strollers and a head full of verbs. I wonder if I should try and find a chimney to climb down but instead I take the stairs.

The stairs in the stairwell leading to the first floor of the apartment building in Hull seem very narrow to me. As if only people with very small feet would ever use them. Then I think of the petite and beautiful French Canadian women and the stairs make much more sense. Although the mixture changes over time, these descendants of the voyageurs were no doubt the main group of people living here in these apartment buildings likely back in the 60s when they were built. On the first floor to the left, a short six steps on those linoleum tiled stairs, is a family from Mexico and to the right my Syrian family. And they are decidedly “my” family, not in a paternalistic patronizing kind of ownership way, but in a sense of affection for a fellow human being when we will both be learning something together for a period of time.

I’m greeted at the door by the husband and in comes the wife. She is particularly more pregnant it seems to me in just a week. Her great circumference of a belly is as round as the eyes of her children who are all excited to tell me that they had been to the doctor today and the child will be arriving a lot sooner than they thought. His name will be Rahanne. The mother does not seem to be as tired this time but she is sad to learn I do not have children. I tell her that is why I love her children now. She smiles. I’m not sure how much she understands as of yet. But I realize she is very quick to learn but much shyer in letting me know. He is very quick to learn. There is no question.

He is clearly frustrated with French classes. He has spent a year and feels as though he has not made any progress. He laughs and shows me his daughter’s head trying to put her head into his because she is fluent with ease in Arabic and French. He wants to be young like her and able to do that. He laughs though with that frustration. He tells me how easily some of his friends have managed to learn English in such a short period of time because they live across the river in Ontario. It isn’t even the fact that it is English but that it is a language that is easier to learn and gets his friends up and running more quickly.

I feel for him. French is the ultimate language of diplomacy because of its precision, but it is that precision that makes learning it a nightmare for some. The comparison of lives and languages is likely unique to our region with the provincial borders five minutes away. It is a vast difference however for the immigrants learning new languages. It would be wrong of me, without any nuanced understanding I’m sure, to say perhaps that this is unfair on humanitarian grounds to expect to learn the complications of French over the simplicity of English. To say such is not intended to start another Separatist movement but to simply state the obvious and question our compassion for a group of people already up against a lot of odds. Far be it from me to say. It is my humble observation. We are not after all Montreal or Quebec City with its vast employment resources for French-speaking job-seekers. And I don't wish to take anything away from the french teachers who are laboring hard to bring this group up to speed. It is simply a question of logistics and humanity at this point.

The children tend to drift in and out while I spend my time intensely teaching the mother and particularly the father tenses of verbs. Once the father understands something, he’s immediately making sense. He is almost making complete sentences. As I explained the present tense of the verb “to be”, a light seemed to go on. "I am,” he says. Then he says "You are... You are crazy!" It is his first complete sentence. I think it is hysterical.  I am crazy. You are crazy. He is crazy. We are crazy. I explain it is probably not a good idea to use that phrase for a bit. Then I think, ah hell. It's likely true. We're all crazy. Each and every one of us.  It is good to laugh. I think of all the sadness life has to offer and how this family and myself went through what we went through and end up sitting at a table across from each other a world away from where we began. Still alive. Still able to laugh. Looking forward to the birth of a new child into this world. I think of that quote from Ehrmann “With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams it is still a beautiful world.”

I tried to explain to this father, this family that the gift was to teach them and that I thank them for the opportunity. But I’m not sure that the machine that does the translation explained that very well. It will simply have to be understood.