It’s all been done before…but you did it better last time, Canada

My tears choke and shame me as I write. When I heard the news this morning about the Kurdi family, I tried to avoid opening any online newspapers because I knew the images would be visible immediately. Then, of course, on Twitter my eyes caught the photo of the dead boy lying on the beach, his face pressed into the tide and little foot crooked against the sand. I tried to scroll up again quickly but the image stuck. I had not wanted to see this image. I knew it would make me uncomfortable. This doesn’t sit well with us in our ordered world.

And then I became uncomfortable because I had looked away. It is shameful that we cannot look at someone else’s tragedy and see it. That is what’s happening in Hungary this week. Armed riot guards advancing to greet a train arriving with refugees, only to corral them into camps. Out of sight, out of mind. In Canada, we might have felt a little smug this summer as the refugee crisis in Europe unfolded, comforted by our record of welcoming people from around the world to settle in our country. Vigorously we insist that we are so compassionate, so accepting, so aware of rights, but sometimes, not where it counts.

A story came up in discussion with my class this summer: we talked about Conrad, the poor raccoon who had the misfortune of keeling over in the middle of a Toronto sidewalk on his last day. No one had come to dispose of the body, and a memorial began to grow as a way to draw attention to this injustice. My students and I had a great time discussing the situation and talked about what “first world problems” refers to. Someone in class offered a different take on the story, however. Canada is a rich country where all opportunities exist, one student said. Dalal went on to say and how wonderful it is that we are so rich to celebrate the life of this raccoon. You Canadians care so much, she said, that you will light a candle for a dead raccoon and acknowledge its passing. In Jordan, Dalal continued, the refugees will not get this treatment from other people, because there is tragedy everywhere.

Dalal Al-Soutary is from Jordan and Canada is lucky to have her and her family. She is an inspiring student; her perspective and observations provide a rich level of discussion for our class. Dalal writes her citizenship test this month, and I have no doubt that she and her family will do wonderful things in Canada. She is a woman full of optimism and gratitude for the opportunities this country offers people here. But today, I’m not sure Dalal should be so optimistic about Canada’s generosity. We’ve failed a refugee family and we’re sporting a black eye on our reputation for compassion. And it’s not like we haven’t faced this type of situation before. Or perhaps we just don’t want to see it this time.

Where is the Canada who opened her doors to 100 000 Vietnamese refugees forty years ago? A group of desperate people setting foot on foreign soil, generously sponsored by Canadians to help them get established in a new country, has been the story promoted this year commemorating the anniversary of the Vietnamese arrival. Today, our country is noticeably richer because the contributing members of Canadian society are comprised of this strong and vibrant Canadian community.

My valued colleague Huong Lu and her family arrived in Canada via this refugee sponsorship program. Forty years after her family arrived here, she teaches newcomers English and how to adapt to Canadian life. Huong talks about her family’s refugee experience with her students in order to connect with them, but more importantly, to show how far you can come in this country even when you arrive with nothing. I count Huong among the proudest Canadians I know. It is difficult for me to imagine an alternative ending to her story. Would her lucky students have an equally exemplary teacher had she and her family been turned away, I wonder. The tragedy of the Kurdi family could have been her family’s had their boat not made it to shore on every island they came across before landing in Malaysia and coming to Canada. I think she’s earned her keep. But her family was afforded the opportunity that Canada didn’t offer to Alan Kurdi and his family.

Our minister of citizenship and immigration cut short his campaign to return to Ottawa and do his job today. Please don’t disappoint us, Mr. Alexander. Show the same level of concern Canada offered our valued citizens 40 years ago. Mr. Cameron is probably regretting some of the comments he made earlier this summer. And Iceland is showing you up.

Thank you to my dear friend @huongtlu, and student @Dalal_sotary, for being Canadian inspirations.

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5 thoughts on “It’s all been done before…but you did it better last time, Canada

  1. Anna, Your post is beautifully written and full of compassion. I had a similar response to the images that were publicized as a result of this tragedy. You are much closer to the personal stories of immigrant families than I am yet you echo many of my same thoughts. Thank-you for writing.

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  2. Anna, vivid memories of past meet present as I read your blog. A powerful depiction of what had been done and what can be done. Thank you for reminding me why I love my job and that it’s not only about teaching a language. I can say my family was very fortunate to have made it safely to Canada back then. Sadly, I also know many other personal stories of people who did not make it out of Vietnam alive. Thank you for the compassion and authenticity in it all!

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    1. Huong, it was painful to express what I wanted to say, so I just decided to be honest.

      Your passion for teaching is so apparent when we have the opportunity to work together, and would it be different had your family not had this experience? The children of immigrants feel the need to prove their contribution to society is important and that their parents’ sacrifices were not made in vain. You and I always joke about the competitive nature of the first generation born here trying to accomplish so much. We are so lucky to have opportunities for achievement that our parents dreamed of for us. Not every story has to be a tragedy, but the tragedies need to be acknowledged and the stories be told.

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