“Fear of something is at the root of hate for others, and hate within will eventually destroy the hater”. George Washington Carver
Like most of you, I am not a politician and in no way shape or form making policy decisions on weighty matters such as admitting refugees into our country or how many to admit – Syrian or otherwise. It is just not up to me. The government of the day here in Canada, having been given a strong mandate will be proceed unfettered as they welcome Syrian refugees of the equivalent population size the likes of Bradford Ontario and Okotoks Alberta. So whether or not one is in favour of the initiative is inconsequential and the question for us is what are we to do if on the off chance we encounter a Syrian refugee? After all, many of us in our populace of 35 million have never met someone from Bradford or Okotoks – I would therefore wager most of us will not meet even one of our newcomers from Syria. But “what if” we did? How does the thought of that make you feel? a question often posed and I witnessed first hand by noted Hungarian – Canadian Physician Dr. Gabor Maté who strongly links mind and body health.
Some of us will be fearful of the possible albeit unlikely encounter. We suspiciously walk about with trepidation and our visual and auditory senses acutely attuned to markers of their proximity. I have not met a Syrian refugee – but in the summer of 2014 I met a Syrian student while we were both observing a rather vulgar Gaza War protest in Calgary – like all such protests I attended that summer and there were several, antagonists and supporters from both sides were often taunting the opposing side with rude and racially motivated invectives.
I decided to move out of direct fire and found a seat on a short cement wall a few metres away. Beside me were two young men of colour. I began a conversation with them about how crazy all this was. They smiled politely. I told them I was just visiting here on business and that I was Jewish but didn’t like these demonstrations. I extended my hand to them and introduced myself.
They each shook my hand; I noticed, however, reluctantly and cautiously.
I asked them how they came to be here.
They looked at each other. “We are friends with the Philistinia,” one said in a heavy Middle Eastern accent.
I asked if they were students; one said he was in a local college and the other was at university. I asked them where they were from. One from Somalia and the other, the one sitting beside me, was from Syria. The Syrian had spectacularly handsome features. I asked them how they liked studying in Calgary; they both nodded. It was very enjoyable, they said. I asked them if they have been able to do any travelling. They said yes, they went to the Kananaskis area.
“You like the mountains? I love them.”
The Syrian’s face positively lit up. “I too love the mountains.” We talked about how Canada’s mountains compared to Syria’s. His Somalian friend smiled and said that he found our mountains very big. “Beautiful but very big.”
“Too big?” I asked jokingly. “What about skiing?”
He put up his hands. “No. Not for me!” We all laughed.
We spoke some more about the mountains; we talked a bit about life in Canada. About their futures and what they wanted to do when they matriculated from university.
Finally it was time to go. I noticed the rally had broken up and mostly all that remained were a few stragglers who looked like they had no place better to go; some police officers lingered in small groups and some city workers showed up to carry away the barricades.
I said good-by to my young friends. We smiled warmly at one another and I noticed when we shook hands the grip was deliberate, firm and came with broad warm smiles. *
Did we solve anything – did war and terrorism end after our conversation? Of course not. But perhaps amongst the three of us we accomplished something – I will let you ponder what that might be … But it felt good.
* From Us versus Us. An Intimate Journey of Letters and Walls, by Stuart Lewis