A significant event in the life our church happened this week, but it was even more significant for another group of people. The Syrian refugee family that we are sponsoring arrived in Canada, and I went with my family to meet them at the airport and sit down for supper with a small group of others. It was a beautiful evening, and I wanted to write about it, but I didn’t want to do a typical “listen to all the misconceptions I had blown away, and so if you stil have the same misconceptions I had yesterday, shame on you” kind of posts. Still there were a number of things that came to my mind that I thought were noteworthy.
It was chaotic at first. Airports are confusing places sometimes, and so for a little while, there were three groups; my family and other church members who arrived late because of unexpected traffic problems, representatives from our partner agency Mennonite Central Committee who had been at many welcomes like this before, and the newly arrived family, all waiting in different parts of the airport. When we finally found each other though, there was still a delay. The wife and children were with us, but the father and one of our volunteer translators were not. We asked where they were and we were told that they were helping another Syrian family, friends from the same plane. Assuming they were friends from Syria we said it was great that they could travel together with friends, but in fact, this was simply another refugee family they had connected with on the airplane. They were supposed to meet a government representative after they got off the plane, but they missed them and came out to the terminal. Once that was worked out, we were free to go, but the people we were helping were also helping others. The circle of help continued at other times of the evening as well.
Our whole group sat down for supper at the home where the refugee will settle in for a few days before moving into their apartment. It wasn’t big enough for everyone to sit around the table, but there would be room in adjacent rooms, so we started grabbing food and plates. I sat down with my kids at the main table, but very quickly I realized that we were out of place. The other children went through the line too, but they followed their mothers to the nearby living room, and when they were done eating (not necessarily when their plates were empty, just like my kids) they went to another room where there were toys and video games. Without anyone directing us, the group was pretty soon mostly segregated, with the men around the main table, the women in the living room and the English and Arabic speaking kids playing together in the games room. If we had all formed one large circle, it would have been cozy, and we would have had moments of cultural learning, but it would have been unnatural. All of us enjoyed and learned from our circles, but not as a result of forced interaction.
Already, as a minor player in the process, I didn’t want to force my voice into the conversation, but I found myself holding back even more than normal. As it turns out, it’s pretty tough to talk about why a family would leave a country, what past and present events led to that country turning out this way, and what needs to be done to improve things, without talking politics. It also turns out to be pretty tough to talk about politics without betraying your allegiances. Maybe it’s my Canadian cultural sensitivities, my Mennonite Christian theological leanings or my introverted personality playing out, but I really shut down in these settings. Partly I’m worried about offending someone, partly I’m worried about being labeled as being part of a political camp that I don’t identify with, partly I see the futility of investing my emotional energy into which countries and leaders are to blame and which US presidential candidate can make things better or worse. Maybe, if someone had said ahead of time to avoid political conversations, the conversation may have been more civil (meaning only that the volume of voices wouldn’t have been raised as high). But, like our dinner, this would have been forced and would have provided only a theoretical benefit.
This process will be a long one, with lots of work and learning ahead for many people involved, but there is excitement about where it will take us.