My amazing friend M. texted me one Saturday as I rushed through my errands. We were celebrating her 40th birthday party that night, and she wondered if I could give someone named B. a lift. We made the arrangements, I got his details, and a few hours later, I picked him up from the metro. Only then did I realize that B. was the Syrian refugee student M. had convinced her college to sponsor.
Excited but worried about putting my foot in my mouth–apparently under the delusion it doesn’t permanently reside there–we set off. B. was lovely and shy, still adjusting to life in Canada and our winter deep-freeze. I broke the ice by immediately saying the dumbest thing imaginable, which he took very graciously. I struggled to treat him like a normal guy while desperate to ask him all the things I shouldn’t. About experiences that can’t be put into words. About languages and barriers and atrocities no human should ever witness. About the country he loved but barely escaped alive. About the journey to this place of refuge that will never replace his homeland.
We found common ground in the student experience and in our love of art. It lifted my heart to know that M.’s efforts had given a fellow artist a chance at a new life. B.’s passion is for breakdancing, and he hopes to collaborate on multi-media projects with his artist sister, who also emigrated. He’s young, that might change. But now he has choices.
In Syria, his parents forced him to study law. Here, he’s free to study what he wants, to create, to risk, to grow, to express himself to his fullest. I cannot wait to see what his future holds, how his talent, ambition, and life experience will be expressed through his art.
B. is the kind of person we are keeping out when we refuse refugees, when we build walls, when we let our politicians get away with the kind of racist and xenophobic rhetoric that is overtaking the world. The kind that inspired another young man around the same age as B., Alexandre Bissonnette, to commit an act of terrorism in the very province that B. came to escape that kind of violence. It enrages me and it breaks my heart that this place where I live, that I have called home for over 40 years, contains so much promise and, at the same time, so much ignorance. That we can welcome with one hand and shoot with the other.
This cannot stand. We cannot let it. People who watched their homes, their cities, their entire way of life be ravaged by war are asking us for help. Who are we if we turn them away? In ways small and large, we can make a difference.
The way that felt right for me was by setting up a monthly donation to the UN Refugee Agency, also known as the UNHCR. They are the world’s leading organization in helping those displaced by violence, conflict, and persecution find shelter, food, water, and medical care. You can donate as little as $20 a month, or do a one-time donation, or help with fundraising activities.
You can also give back by writing to your federal, provincial, or state politicians. By doing something charitable for the refugees in your community. By helping spread the word on your own blogs and social media. By taking on those with racist attitudes in your immediate circle.
By being the change you want to see in the world, one small step, one small gesture at a time.