Tuesday, April 01, 2008

We must never forget the commandment to welcome the stranger

Janice Kennedy, The Ottawa Citizen
Published: Sunday, March 30, 2008

This Thursday, Ottawans will gather at a banquet hall to eat, dance, participate in a silent auction and generally contribute to yet another fundraiser for yet another worthy cause. This Thursday is also Refugee Rights Day, the anniversary of a Supreme Court ruling 23 years ago that refugee claimants’ rights to life, liberty and security of the person are protected by our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The two events are not unrelated. The fundraiser is for a remarkable little Ottawa group called Helping With Furniture (helpingwithfurniture.com), founded less than three years ago by friends Buffey Cassidy and Nathalie Maione. HWF picks up used furniture and household goods from people who might otherwise have to leave them for the landfills, and then delivers the goods to refugee families who have, almost literally, nothing.

Cassidy still recalls the scene that greeted her a couple of years ago when furniture landed on the doorstep of a family from El Salvador. Mother, father and three young children had been living for two full months with nothing — nothing — but blankets on the floor. No table, no chairs, no mattresses.

Forty-five minutes later, HWF had set up a household for them. Cassidy remembers one of the little boys shyly taking her hand, and then the whole family holding hands with the volunteers. She remembers the father’s prayer in Spanish, the way he told God he thought they’d been abandoned, but now they had hope.

Cassidy, 39, and Maione, 46, are busy women, both of them operators of home-based daycares. So there must be a pretty good reason for the endless volunteer hours they put in, the heavy lifting they do, the out-of-pocket money they freely spend. And there is.

The women saw a problem and knew they could do some small thing about it. (The organization, which receives no grants and is only now getting charitable status — having relied exclusively on donations and goodwill — has helped more than 140 families in its brief history.) They also knew they could coax a sliver of hope into hopeless lives.

Cassidy is originally from a Nova Scotia fishing village, and Maione emigrated with her family from France as a child. Although neither suffered the deprivations of desperate refugees, both understand firsthand the unsettling reality of being a stranger in a strange place.

That kind of empathic understanding is really what it’s all about, in the end.

Refugees, and immigrants generally, challenge our collective conscience.

We harbour attitudes among us that are often closed and suspicious, fit-in-or-go-home mentalities. We’re confronted by some people’s curiously entrenched beliefs that immigration here should have stopped with the French, or the Scots, English and Irish, or the Chinese railway labourers, or the Calabrians, or the postwar refugees from eastern Europe — or any of countless communities of choice and identity.

(To such folks, might I offer a simpler approach? Let go of the anger, embrace the diversity and cherish the new social wealth that has come to us with broader immigration. Far less stressful.)

But of course, there’s more to the issue than attitude, surly or sunny.

Many Canadians justifiably worry about a disruption of the delicate national balance, economically, culturally, socially, politically. Many Canadians — sometimes even the same ones — also worry about how best to do the right thing. The stability of the nation must be safeguarded as much as its moral responsibility in a global community. What to do?

While there is no single answer to an issue involving so many complex spheres of national life, there is a single principle at its core, one that should guide all of us, whether we’re politicians and bureaucrats making life-anddeath decisions, or neighbours in a community.

That principle — and, really, it’s a kind of collective heartbeat — dictates simply that, yes, we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. And we are for the most basic of reasons: because we are indeed all brothers and sisters. Because we look after others as we hope to be looked after ourselves. Because no matter how different our temperaments or how much we squabble, we are all family.

The way Canada treats its immigrants and refugee claimants is far from shameful. We do many things right, including legally recognizing these battered people’s fundamental human rights under our own Charter, a recognition we honour this Thursday. But we have a distance to go, a fact made evident by even a cursory visit to the website of the Canadian Council for Refugees (ccrweb.ca). Among other things, refugee claimants here are still being denied the right of appeal, and victims of human trafficking are not adequately protected by our legislation.

Those are large and important issues. But there are smaller important issues, too, and these are the ones that grassroots groups like Cassidy and Maione’s have set about addressing. Sometimes a single flickering image is all it takes to light a fire.

When you’re shaping your opinion of Canada’s evolving immigration and refugee policy, try picturing a young family. Imagine the five of them gathered in the sudden warmth of a home furnished with beds, chairs and delicate new promise. That’s the heartbeat. That is Cassidy and Maione’s approach.

“We always try to welcome them as neighbours,” says Cassidy.

In a world of complex government policy, solutions don’t come much simpler than that. Or more hopeful.
Janice Kennedy’s column appears weekly. E-mail: 4janicekennedy@gmail.com

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