In the last two weeks, the travesty of what’s been happening in the Middle East (a complicated and complex term in itself) has come to full light with the recent refugee crisis that has hit many parts of Europe. To be clear, this crisis was a long time coming and one that could easily have been anticipated with war and in-fighting a constant in the region. The natural consequence of the conflict in the Levant has been the displacement of thousands from their ancestral homes now decimated by the constant barrage of military engagements in large metropolitan areas. What were once safe homes have been turned to rubble and thousands upon thousands have fled their countries is search of safe harbours willing to shelter them during this time of immense grief.
My Dad’s family’s arrival in Canada resulted when Idi Amin, the dictator of Uganda between 1971 to 1979, forced out all the Asians from the country making thousands of Ugandans refugees overnight. My Dad’s family, all of who were born and raised in Uganda, became homeless in a matter of days, with their properties nationalized and their accounts seized. This was a dire time for my family as it was for the countless others who were forcibly exiled from Uganda. My Dad, who was completing his studies in India at the time, feared for the safety of my grandparents and his siblings while he was away, feeling helpless in providing assistance or being close to his family in their time of hardship.
The story does get better though. Asylum seekers residing in a refugee camp in Malta, my grandparents were eventually given refugee status to enter Canada. Over time, other members of the family reunited in Montreal, Quebec and they were once again together in a new country. To this day, the amount of gratitude that my family has towards Canada for offering a safe haven during a time of massive uncertainty can never truly be measured. Even the challenges associated with settling in a new country and context never diminished their strong affection for their adoptive homeland. They made it through the hardships of multiple cold winters in Montreal, the difficulties of navigating their way through a new city, and became hardworking and dedicated members of Canadian society. My parents would eventually meet in Montreal, marry and start a family in Canada, providing a better future for themselves and their children.
I am the proud product of this history. I am the son of a refugee. There are many who are. From those forced out of Uganda to the tens of thousands of Vietnamese boat people that arrived in Canada, refugees eventually made Canada their home and have excelled and contributed to making Canada and their respective new home countries better and more vibrant. Among those Ugandan refugees, one went on to be the mayor of Calgary, another a member of the Senate, and many others became doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and teachers.
Today, my heart goes out to all those people who are seeking safety and succour in the most challenging moments of their lives. The plight that my family went through doesn’t even begin to compare to the challenges and hardship that current refugees are facing. Canada opened its arms to my family at a time of immense need. The same cannot be said for the current wave of refugees who are being deterred from countries whose borders they come into contact with. Thousands suffer as they march on from one country to the next. They’ve covered thousands of kilometers on foot, crossing harsh landscapes looking for safety for themselves and their families.
In all of this there is an opportunity for each one of us to extend the bonds of friendship to those who are suffering. All faiths compel us to help those who are most in need. Empathy and compassion are two necessary traits that all human beings have the capacity to cultivate and those of faith can look at the teachings from their respective traditions (and others!) as a way of further developing these important human characteristics. I think the Persian poet Sa’adi captured this idea best in the following:
All humans are members of the same body,
Created from one essence.
If fate brings suffering to one member,
The others cannot stay at rest.
You who remain indifferent
To the burden of pain of others,
Do not deserve to be called human.
With this crisis, there is more reason today to think about the whole, about our collective humanity and our responsibility in offering aide to those who need it. My biggest hope is that once these people settle in countries ready to receive them, once they’ve established themselves and found their bearing in a new home, that we can sit together and hear their stories and that we can share ours as well, and through this sharing of who we are, of our stories and our histories, we can come together more united.
Image source: Alim Fakirani, Kampala, Uganda. 2013