Don’t pre­sume to mea­sure grat­i­tude

Pro­vid­ing refuge to oth­ers when the need arises is a priv­i­lege Canada can af­ford

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - JANET TRULL Janet Trull is a free­lance writer and author of “Hot Town,” a col­lec­tion of short fic­tion.

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?


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