A giving spirit inspired by our past

This week’s writer is Clare Maier, Advocacy Research Intern for the Ottawa Office for September to December. She is from Kitchener, Ontario and studies anthropology at Carleton University in Ottawa.

The sanctuary is dark and quiet. The room doesn’t ring with hundreds of joyful voices. Instead, it echoes with the sound of box cars being thrown open and angry voices barking Russian orders not for the benefit of the cars’ occupants. Quiet sniffles, constant throughout the experience, break out around the sanctuary in earnest as the heavy metal box car doors once again creak open, this time, to the emotional and heart-wrenching singing of the reenactment crew. As the documentary And when they shall ask comes to an end, scattered sobs can be heard through the still darkened room.

And when they shall ask is a documentary exploring the history of Mennonites in Russia, ending with the persecution and escape of many communities via the railway in the 1920s. In fact, it was the terrible conditions that lead to people’s emigration from Russia that also prompted church members in North America to form MCC.

Mennonite immigrants arriving in Rosthern, SK from the Soviet Union in 1923. Photo courtesy Canadian Mennonite and Mennonite Archival Image Database.

While the documentary tells the story of one major migration, it’s important to acknowledge that because of the unique history of Canada, many citizens share an experience of immigration buried somewhere in their family tree. Apart from Indigenous people, much of Canada’s identity is built around immigration, with people coming first from Europe but subsequently from around the world.

Each person is touched differently by the viewing of the film. The elderly remember those hard years in Soviet Russia and their paths to Canada. The middle-aged experienced the adjustments of their parents and learned to fit in at school. The young heard the stories, the fragmented tales of life “back then” and they appreciate their comfortable, safe lives. Together, they are remembering stories of fleeing as refugees from Russia, of arriving in Canada and learning new ways and a new language. They are remembering being welcomed as immigrants.

It’s no secret the world is experiencing an increase in refugee activity once again. Almost daily, stories of Syria, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean feature in the paper and pop up in our newsfeed. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), there are now more than 65.3 million people who are forcefully displaced around the world. Given the current multiplicity of crises around the world, this number is not likely to decline.

Canada has once again welcomed refugees to its vast wilderness (although most settle in cities), and in twenty years the scene described above may very well tell of the journey from Syria rather than Russia. It may be set in a mosque rather than a church, and its viewers may prefer to eat flatbread and hummus rather than Zwieback and jam. One thing that won’t change is the memories and the shouts of joy at the end of the journey.

Not all journeys, however, end in celebration. Some journeys are physically exhausting, some are emotionally draining, and some, like those crossing the Mediterranean, may end in heartbreak. As I write this, just over a year has passed since the world became intimately aware of the Syrian refugee crisis, stirred to action by the death of young Alan Kurdi. Since then, good things have been happening around the world with many countries taking in refugees and mobilizing other resources.

However, not all countries and not all citizens are extending a welcome to refugees. Some of the major rhetoric surrounding the recent Brexit decision (Great Britain leaving the European Union) was focused on distrust and the ways in which immigrants might be stealing jobs and generally ruining the country. This viewpoint, and the anti-immigration parties across Europe that support it, capitalize on fears, while also taking great care to emphasize cultural differences.

These thoughts and attitudes are not absent in Canada. I too hear murmurings from distrustful Canadians, complaining that the refugees are getting free housing and health care. Again, think back to Great-great-great-great Grandpa Martin (or whatever his name was). How grateful are you that Canada opened its borders for your family? Shouldn’t the same rules apply now?

Together, Canadians continue to welcome Syrian refugees — 31,444 to date, many of them families. A quick browse through old newspapers reminds us that Canadians have responded to their arrival generously, donating toys and furniture, time and settlement services and warm clothes. The articles praise the giving spirit of Canadians and our initial efforts to embrace our new neighbours. Indeed, it is our privilege to greet families at airports and helpfully show them how one sleds properly, but as Christians, it should also be our honour to serve them and walk with them as Christ has so beautifully modelled.

Douglas Mennonite Church in Winnipeg sponsored and then organized a wedding celebration for Syrian refugees Brian Darweesh and Reem Younes, 2015. MCC photo/Matthew Sawatzky.

This is not to say that many Canadians aren’t already inviting immigrants into their homes, and that many aren’t already volunteering in other ways. Rather, I offer a gentle reminder of the motivation behind our actions, and a subtle push to do more where we can. As Canadians, most of our family histories have stories of acceptance and assistance. These past actions were not confined to “liking” a sympathetic story on Facebook, nor were they restricted to impartial donations on a Sunday morning. Instead, they involved concrete, sometimes scary, and occasionally uncomfortable expressions of deeply-held core beliefs. As Anabaptists, and simply as Christians, our desire and our mandate is to feed the hungry, care for the sick, and embrace the poor. We do that by following the Example set out for us in Scriptures, showering others with the Love that was showered on us.

We all share stories of arrival and of settlement. Now it’s time to go plant ourselves into someone else’s story. Evaluate what you can do, commit to it, and take one step further. After all, this immigration “situation” isn’t just an international news piece, it’s in our borders, and, luckily, it’s in our neighbourhoods. Go, get involved, it’s not far.


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