*For those made refugees by circumstance, and all those who tirelessly support them, and in honour of Refugee Week, the National Day of Action to reverse cuts to refugee health care in Canada, and World Refugee Day (June 20), 2013.
by Kathryn Gwun-Yeen Lennon
She arrived from the Congo two days ago.
She’s not sure how she got here.
She doesn’t know where her children are
or if her husband is alive.
I’m sitting with her at the Mennonite Coalition for Refugee Support in Kitchener, Ontario, trying to keep up with the roll of her Congolese French,
filling out forms from Citizenship and Immigration Canada,
hoping we pick the right answers.
She speaks zero English, has zero dollars, does not know the birth dates of her parents, or the height, in meters, of her children.
Our feet are the same size.
She dresses with dignity
a necklace at her throat
below, a machete scar.
Resilience is in the weave of her hair.
I walk her back to the Women’s Shelter, which houses her for the first few weeks,
and she whispers to me that she needs a soutien-gorge, a bra.
I think: it’s fitting that soutien means to
support, sustain, elevate.
Later, when she’s been in Canada for a few months, I visit.
She has been taken in by a Congolese family she
met in a hair salon, has food to eat, but still struggles getting to the hospital
for appointments on public transit.
In her bedroom she has black garbage bags
filled with bras,
ready to be mailed back home
to women in a war
to hold up
chests crisscrossed by machete scars.
Months later, for my birthday, she gives me two bras.
She says, “I hope they fit”.
She is a prairie girl.
She grew up believing in electric blue winter mornings when the air crackles cold against the inside of your nostrils and frozen eyelashes make the world glitter with promises.
She grew up believing in the grace and dignity of open skies that give space to everyone, and reflect welcomes with smiles in the crinkles at the corners of eyes.
She grew up believing that justice flows steady like the muddy meander of a river, straight and true from source to mouth.
She believes in justice
In a world where there is no war
In a world where there is no hunger
In a world where there is no suffering
In a world where there is no destruction, no empires, no greed.
Some call her naïve.
They see the stars in her eyes, the prairie skies,
eyelashes frozen shut, as hiding a world that is
gritty like the gum stuck to bus seat backs
tough like bloodstains on sidewalk corners
hard like finding used needles and beer bottles in schoolyards
lonely like having no one to call who speaks your language.
She answers the phone, fills out paperwork and writes reports,
but that is not why she goes to work.
That is not why she can’t sleep at night
That is not why she stops tracking her hours
She knows that you can’t just punch in and punch out
when it is urgent, and it is a fight.
You’ve got to keep your fists up and your mind sharp
but your heart big and your eyes kind.
See, she wants a revolution. She wants to change the world.
She’s never traveled far from home,
but she always carries a backpack, and
a mental map that gets pencil-coloured in every time she meets someone from somewhere she never knew.
She’s never traveled the world, but the world is here,
in this row of townhouses, in this apartment complex, stacked up beside, over, and under each other, in this school where 25 languages spill
out at parent-teacher interviews.
Here where neighbourhoods here are made by multi-cultural, multi-national because the nations of the world are spilling
people across borders,
people with pockets full of nothing but a desire to live
that carries them across rivers, across mountains, across borders, across fences.
But after traveling across rivers, across mountains, across borders, across fences,
they arrive here, at her door, and
her heart breaks because she knows she can’t promise they’ll be safe here,
that there won’t be reason to deport them
that they won’t live without fear here.
Her heart breaks because she can’t promise to protect them
from slipping on icy sidewalks and
cracks in a system that keeps them
them fearful of
loved ones lost.
She reads headlines
Wars for water and wars for oil and wars for land.
Destruction, empires and greed.
Hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes and plane crashes.
But she learns, from them, that fear won’t get you very far.
She learns of a Baghdad where a family turned a soccer field into a vegetable garden to feed the neighbourhood.
She learns that mothers must cook with love,
because emotions have a way of creeping into the food they make.
She learns that they want to become doctors and lawyers and change the world,
if they can only pass grade 10 English class.
She learns that resilience is in the weave of your hair, and that support is mailing
bags full of bras back to women in a war, to hold up
chests crisscrossed by machete scars.
She learns that riding a bike for someone who hasn’t been allowed to ride one in 20 years,
is like flying, like filling up on freedom.
She learns that cinnamon is love,
and rice baked with a stick of cinnamon tucked inside is magic.
She learns that you must have peace in your heart before you can achieve peace in the world.
She learns that they woke up their first morning in Canada feeling so safe here.
She learns how to eat fresh vegetables from their garden and how to share food from the food bank.
She learns of revolutions in Mexico, in Guatemala, in Cuba, in the Philippines, in Iran.
She learns about pupusas and papas rellenas and chole batura and dates and tea
and parsley and chillies and tomatoes grown in gardens, and that sharing these is an excuse for conversation between friends.
Because she is a prairie girl, she still believes in electric blue winter mornings,
in the grace and dignity of open skies that give space to everyone
and that justice flows steady like the muddy meander of a river,
but maybe not always so straight and true.
Maybe it takes
hope, like flying a kite high above highways and big box stores
and hard work, like raising a barn together,
and faith, like knowing that apple blossoms will return come spring
and courage, like knowing that tornadoes can strike hard and fast,
but you can’t hide in your basement
because summer’s short and sweet.