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.



Elections and matters of the heart

By Rebekah Sears, policy analyst for the Ottawa Office. For the Ottawa Office’ s Federal Election Resource, click here.

As I was drafting this post, the global refugee/forced migration crisis – an issue very close to my heart – FINALLY captured the full attention of media outlets around the world. It also finally made its way into the Canadian federal election campaign. It’s incredible how one heart-breaking story can capture the attention of so many people, even though a full year ago the UNHCR reported that the scale of people forcefully displaced around the world had reached numbers not seen since the Second World War – 60 million people.

Amidst the sadness and overwhelming nature of this crisis, my hope is that this global crisis and other issues like it remain at the forefront of the Canadian federal election campaign: creating energy, enthusiasm and excitement – driving substantial policy debates, discussions and plans, leading right up to Election Day.

Hannah and her eight children arrived in Jordan as refugees from Syria in 2914. One of the children has multiple disabilities. MCC photo by Gordon Epp-Fransen.

Hannah and her eight children arrived in Jordan as refugees from Syria in 2914. One of the children has multiple disabilities. MCC photo by Gordon Epp-Fransen.

 *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

I remember the 1995 Quebec Referendum all so clearly. My brother and I were sitting in the family room, eyes glued to the TV, watching the Yes/ No votes swing between 51/49 and 49/51, respectively. My parents were watching with us, my Dad pacing back and forth across the room, saying to himself over and over again: “This is a social studies teacher’s dream… It’s a social studies teacher’s dream!”

It was getting late; way past my bedtime! I remember begging to stay up just a little longer, but to no avail. I would just have to wait until morning to learn the outcome. Besides, it was not until the wee hours of the morning when the official results were finally declared: 51% No, 49% Yes. The federalist vote had won!

Many of us remember the moments when our various interests and passions were first ignited. The Quebec Referendum was such an occasion for me. It ignited a passion for politics (in case you didn’t catch that already!): the process, the debates, the policies and definitely the elections.

My adolescent and teen years were full of election moments: explaining the First-Past-the-Post system to my classmates; accompanying my parents to the polling stations; my Dad quizzing us constantly on local candidates and party platforms in the car or around the dinner table; attending any and all local candidate debates; watching leadership debates on TV; meeting various MPs on a school trip to Ottawa; and finally casting a ballot for the first time!

GNMThere’s no doubt my own love for politics has strong roots in the excitement around elections and the political process in general. But for me, beyond the exhilaration of watching the election results roll in, are the ideas, issues and policies behind each candidate and party. These various key ideas and prospective policies are the building blocks (at least in theory!) that will define the mandates of the new Parliament. Election campaigns provide an opportunity to get directly involved in the shaping of the policies that will govern us!

For Christians, elections are also a time to consider the political implications for our faith. They are times to discern, with humility, how Jesus’ call to love our neighbours may be reflected in the public good.

My love for politics developed alongside my faith from a young age. For me, the intersection of faith and politics took the form of a passion and desire for justice, peace and human dignity, firmly rooted in the teachings of Christ and Scripture as a whole. I believe that it is the responsibility of both government and our society in general tobe champions of peace, justice and human dignity for all.

These principles can be reflected in any number of global and national issues. In the MCC Ottawa Office’s Canadian election resource, we speak to concerns raised by MCC program and partners in Canada and around the world and the potential role of government. Some of these include: responding to the global forced migration and refugee crisis, promoting peacebuilding in areas of conflict, supporting small scale farmers around the world, walking alongside Canada’s Indigenous peoples, and many more.

Each of us is impacted in our way by these and other key issues. For me, the global refugee/forced migration crisis is one of those themes always weighing heavily on my heart, striking to the very core. For me it symbolizes one of the fundamental places where my own faith and love for politics meet – in the deep yearning to protect human dignity, to reach out in love to our neighbours, and to build a sustainable peace for all.

What are the issues that speak to you? What ignites your political and/or faith passion?

At election time, as parties and candidates reveal their plans and promises on many key issues, we invite you to scrutinize, ask questions, join movements, get involved in your communities, speak to your neighbours and candidates, and ultimately show up at the ballot box. You won’t want to miss it!