Don’t presume to measure gratitude
Providing refuge to others when the need arises is a privilege Canada can afford
Canada. Aren’t we the generous nation? We open our doors to refugees, we find them accommodation, we shower them in tax dollars to feed and clothe their families and they are not grateful. Or at least, not grateful enough. Would it kill them to smile?
I spent a month with refugees recently. Not in Canada, but in Cyprus. Cyprus is an island right in the middle of a volatile triangle with vertices of Turkey, Israel and Syria. Cypriots are well accustomed to being refugees in their own land. The great empires of history have occupied this Mediterranean island repeatedly for thousands of years. The Romans, the Saxons, the Ottomans. A British base is still there, with thousands of acres of prime, seaside property. English Tudor officers’ quarters and lovely cottages for the troops border cricket pitches and tennis courts. An American base is there, too, with soldiers at the gate. What a strategic little bit of geography Cyprus is, nestled in Eastern Europe like a stepping-stone to the nearest war zone.
Our hosts grew up in Famagusta, a lovely city of 300,000 on the east coast of Cyprus. Their family was doing well in the restaurant and hotel business. They were educated and prosperous and they had every reason to believe in a stable future. But in 1974, the Turkish army came to claim Famagusta for themselves.
People were hurriedly moved to various locations around Cyprus. Many families were divided. Many did not know if their loved ones got out of Famagusta with their lives. As Turkish tanks and planes bombed homes that still had laundry drying on the line, our friends were directed to a refugee camp in Achna Forest, about 48 kilometres inland.
Moms and dads, ailing grandmothers and crying infants found themselves in a semiarid pine forest, uninhabited for good reason. The British army dropped off some tents and basic supplies and assured the refugees that the situation was temporary. They would soon get back home.
Years went by. The displaced Cypriots existed in a time warp of impermanence. Some of them, the healthy and the hopeful among them, began raising goats and chickens and rabbits. Planting grapevines. Starting businesses. Others became listless. They wore their grief like the sad-eyed saints and martyrs that decorate the Orthodox churches of Cyprus. Unable to overcome the losses, many succumbed to early deaths. After several years, the government supported the refugees with the means to build small cement block homes. More than 40 years have passed and many families are still living in the refugee houses.
Are they grateful yet? Hell no. They are not. Although negotiations with Turkey continue to this day, our host is not optimistic that the refugees will be allowed to return to their city. As a young man, he buried his coin collection near the back shed. He dreams that, one day, he’ll be able to dig it up. One day, the Turks will tear down the high fence and call off the armed guards. Famagusta, according to the Cypriots, is the biggest ghost town in the world, a paradise lost.
Streets in Achna are dirty and cluttered with abandoned machinery and half-finished projects. And yet, on Orthodox Easter, the village erupts in traditional events. Dancing, outdoor barbecues, heritage costumes, huge bonfires, gaudy decorations. We experience generosity and laughter and community spirit. It is not unlike the First Nations powwows here in Canada where traditional celebrations appear to triumph over hardship and grief.
Are Canada’s indigenous people refugees? Yes. Yes they are. Much like the Cypriots, they were sent to regions of poor economic opportunity and given a stipend for housing and education and health care. Are they grateful? Hell no. Have they invested in their communities? Not in the way most Canadians think they should. Many have tumbled into pits of poverty, violence and addiction. Are they grateful? Should they be?
Canada has opened her doors to Syrian refugees. Some people want them to be more grateful. Some people want them to adapt to our culture a little faster than they are. Some people don’t want them at all.
Who among us can guarantee that, when our own luck runs out, we will have the strength to rise above the devastation of unimaginable loss? On a scale of one to 10, how grateful will you be? Grateful to be safe? Grateful to have clean water and a school for your children to attend? Grateful enough to smile and thank the haters?
Refugees are arriving in Canada and will be arriving as long as there are wars and natural disasters and regimes of persecution in the world. Some refugees adapt. Some thrive. Some struggle to express their gratefulness when their hearts are burdened with loss. Their presence among us offers opportunities for compassion and service and yes, sharing our bountiful resources may require some sacrifice. What will it cost? The price of a new patio set? A Disney cruise?
Providing refuge to others when the need arises is a privilege that many countries cannot afford. We can. And we can do it without measuring gratefulness.
A man looks at deserted hotels in the abandoned suburb of Varosha in Famagusta, Cyprus. Author Janet Trull asks: Should the families still displaced from the city be grateful?