A gift of welcome

by Brian Dyck

Back in February 2016, Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies was at the Edmonton airport with a doll in her hands. She was standing there with friends she had known most of her life waiting for people she had never met.

Nhung, her mother and her five older siblings fled to Malaysia from Vietnam in 1978 on an overcrowded boat; an experience she never forgot. After eight months in a refugee camp, the family was told they would be going to Canada. A Catholic Church in Enoch, Alberta had agreed to sponsor her family without knowing much about them.

The Tran family a few months after arriving in Canada, with toys donated by their sponsors. (Photo courtesy of Nhung Tran-Davies.)

In 1979, Nhung was five years old when she arrived at the Edmonton airport knowing no English and knowing no one in Canada. She was given a doll by a girl in the sponsoring group. That small act of kindness and welcome had a significant impact on her. The doll became a constant reminder that she was given a precious gift of a future—a future that many refugees do not have. When I talked to Nhung a few weeks ago, she again mentioned what that doll symbolized for her. She also said that if she or her brothers and sisters ever forgot what it meant for their family to be able to settle in Canada, their mother would surely remind them.

Nhung Tran-Davies received a doll from her sponsors when she arrived at the airport in 1979. The moment was captured for the local newspaper, and she still has the doll today. (Photo courtesy of Nhung Tran-Davies)

Nhung went to medical school and graduated in 2002. After doing a residency in Nova Scotia, which included a time of volunteering at an HIV/AIDS clinic in the Gambia, she returned to rural Alberta to establish a medical clinic in the small town of Calmar, Alberta, near Enoch where she had first found a home and a community in Canada.

On a very superficial level, when Nhung and her family were welcomed to Canada in 1979, Canada gained someone who would become a dedicated medical doctor in a small town 30 years down the road. Canada, on a very superficial, economic level, gains when refugees like Nhung are resettled here.

A few years ago, the UNHCR Canada office put out a report showing that over time, resettled refugees pay more in income taxes than the benefits they receive, and that does not include other taxes like GST/HST/PST or municipal taxes. Resettled refugees also tend to start businesses and create jobs at a slightly higher rate than those born in Canada. Nhung, who studied to become a doctor, represents a common story of a child who came to Canada as a refugee and then contributes greatly to Canadian society throughout their life. Refugee children go into post-secondary education at a slightly higher rate than those born in Canada.

Nhung Tran-Davies (right) with some of the friends helping with sponsorship today. (Photo courtesy of Peter Markowski)

There are also other benefits to our communities that are possibly harder to quantify when we welcome refugees. For example, refugees add diversity to our communities. When driving down certain streets in any city in Canada, we encounter the history of Canada’s immigration through the restaurants we discover, many of which were started by refugees. Additionally, throughout the current pandemic, many communities have learned how much we rely on people who have come to Canada as refugees as we hear of the stories of staff of personal care homes and hospitals in various critical professions.

But even more important than the contributions that refugees make to our society is how the act of welcoming a newcomer—of providing hospitality—changes us. I cannot count the number of times that someone has shared with me how being involved in refugee sponsorship has changed them.

In 2016, Nhung decided that it was her turn to give others the gift of a future and to symbolize this gift by giving a doll to a little girl arriving in Canada. CBC News was at the airport to capture this truly moving story.

Video courtesy of CBC. Nhung Tran-Davies was a Vietnamese refugee privately sponsored by a group of Canadians in 1979. Now she is sponsoring a family of Syrian refugees. Playing time:  5:12

Nhung shared with me recently that, when she saw the images of Syrians fleeing their homes in boats, it reminded her of her own experience. Like so many other people, she reached out to MCC to say, “I want to help.” Over the last couple of years, Nhung has worked alongside the same sponsors who helped her family 42 years earlier to settle more refugees in Canada. As we were talking this month, she and her group were just putting the finishing touches on another sponsorship application through MCC.

Nhung Tran-Davies with Basemah Albittar, from one of the newly arrived families, and interpreter Dalia Abddellatif. (Photo courtesy of Nhung Tran-Davies)

In April 2021, Nhung published a children’s book that captures the story of the doll she received as a girl and teaches a lesson of passing on gifts of kindness.

Robin Wall Kimmerer in her book Braiding Sweetgrass, in writing about her role as caregiver to her children, writes: “We are showered every day with gifts, but they are not meant for us to keep. Their life is in their movement, the inhale, and the exhale of our shared breath. Our work and our joy is to pass along the gift and to trust that what we put out into the universe will always come back” (p. 104).

The doll Nhung was given in 1979 was part of an exhibit about ‘Canada’s role in the refugee movements in the 20th century’ at the Pier 21 Museum in Halifax between March to November 2018. To Nhung, the doll is “a symbol of all that is good and beautiful with humanity” telling the story of how Canada forever changed the lives of so many. (Photo courtesy Nhung N Tran-Davies)

I think that the movement of gifts in our lives is something that Nhung has taken to heart. I have seen that in so many people who have sponsored refugees over the years. I invite you to join Nhung and many others we work with in appreciating the gifts that we have received in our lives and generously passing them on so that others can find a new home and community in Canada.

Brian Dyck is the National Resettlement and Migration Coordinator for MCC Canada


June 20, 2021 is World Refugee Day! Visit our website to learn more about refugee resettlement and to find out how you can and get involved in peace and justice for all. To stay informed, subscribe to our newsletter.

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