Syrian Refugees: Who Helps the Helpers?

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The harsh truth about helping Canada’s Syrian refugees is with us now.  The state of their kids’ teeth, our inability to communicate in Arabic, and all that. I’m sure there are many misunderstandings that have the potential to gnaw at the goodwill cloud that swept the Canadian nation when first our new PM announced his commitment to bringing 25,000 Syrian refugees to their new home.

I witnessed a degree of despair in the voice of a volunteer interpreter the other day – the need for his time, to help with all sorts of everyday conversations, like visits to the doctor, is taking its toll. It doesn’t sound at all like he’s about to give up, but it raises the question ‘who cares for the caregivers?’  He said it was fortunate that he’s a business man and not a salaried employee, so he has great flexibility in his time.  What was clear was that he is increasingly unable to attend to his business or his own family because the needs of the refugees, for his support, is so great.

Then there are the frustrated private sponsors who are still waiting. Some have paid rent on apartments for ‘their’ refugees, but no allotment has been made yet and they want the Feds to expedite the screening process.  They’re still stuck with the levels of bureaucracy: they have yet to experience the frustration and bemusement of helping families who have their own huge issues – strangers in a strange land, with no language in common with their Canadian heroes.  The number of Syrian refugees coming in via private sponsorships can easily match the government-sponsored ones.

This initiative has been a great way of getting us to step out of our own comfort zones and to take on collective responsibility for helping.  Those with a strong sense of nationalist pride will say that we got our Canada back – this is who we are.

In cultural competence literature we emphasize that the competency lies in one’s open-minded curiosity and willingness to learn.  In being mindful and learning in the moment; not in judging or in expecting the stranger to learn our ways through sacrificing their own traditions.  The theory is far easier than the reality.

As people get to know each other better, as that first thrill at meeting ‘our’ refugees for the first time recedes in time, and the pressures of  their ongoing needs and our own lives demand attention, friction is bound to surface.  The simple fact is that not all people are easy to get along with.  Some sponsors and hosts are going to find that some refugees are nasty and ungrateful much as others will become life-long friends.  They are as human as we are and as full of issues and history and quirks as we are, except more so because of what they’ve been through; and the goodbyes they had to say in coming.

Chances are there’s more sympathy for their plight as refugees than for their lifelong career as human beings.

I’ve also heard talk, in something bordering on panic or, alternately, disdain, that it is taking them ‘much longer’ to settle in than was anticipated. Anyone who thinks you can settle and integrate in weeks or months hasn’t tried moving to a foreign land. It is an ongoing process – you keep learning. I’ve been a Canadian for 38 years and there are STILL Canadian things that I need to ask explanations about. Only this year, did I finally come to understand why ‘happy Easter’ sounds wrong to me – it is a matter of culture. Where I came from Easter wasn’t a happy time.

I had a long conversation this week with a young woman from Eastern Europe who is in Canada on an academic scholarship. As we meandered in our conversation about the differences in how Germans and  Canadians tend to express themselves (direct vs. wordy. Shortest route vs. scenic) she described a situation to me where her Canadian housemates had objected to something she had done, but instead of speaking to her directly about it, had taken their complaint to the landlord.  She is not a refugee – she is here by choice, to advance her career.  She speaks English well enough that she can find her way around life in our city and her campus.  She has a home, a job, a course of study. Yet, she is vulnerable in her lack of understanding of the Canadian rules of the game.

When she is attacked via a third party she doesn’t understand why the woman who has the bedroom next to hers; who shares the stairs, bathroom and kitchen with her every day, would take her complaint to an outsider.  Maybe it is a personality trait of the complainer rather than a characteristic of our society. Maybe it simply reflects abject lack of experience and understanding of communal living.

We worked out a way in which my new friend can deal with the dynamics in the house, in a way that the others will find constructive and instructive.  She certainly has more resources available to her than a non-English speaking refugee family would. That does not mitigate the misery and distress she experienced at the disrespectful way she felt she’d been treated. Imagine the dark confusion that must constantly be present in the minds of refugee families too.

Then I think about the sponsors and caregivers, guides, interpreters and helpers of the Syrian refugees and I ask again, who takes care of the caregivers?  We can’t all volunteer to do supportive things directly for the refugees, but there is a ripple effect – if the refugee family is the pebble that’s tossed into the Canadian lake; and if the sponsors are the first ripple; then the interpreters are the second ripple, and so on; until we get to the waves crashing on the shore – who stands there to bear witness and to help the helpers?

Funny thing is, the people who are in the thick of things: The ones who could direct well-intended secondary levels of support to the right places, are so overwhelmed with coping on a day to day basis that they simply can’t handle further offers of help. Well-wishers – volunteers and others – become another layer of complexity that needs managing. But when you have to engage in triage on an almost hourly basis, they tend to slide to the bottom of the heap.  Understandable, but a pity, for if we could find a way of tapping into this next level of support the entire deck of cards will be more stable and more manageable.   It could even be that we’d have a winning hand if we did that.

But isn’t it a nice problem to have: more help than you can handle? I’m truly awestruck by how Canadians have stepped up to the plate on this one.  And I’m open to suggestions on how to become that extra ripple of support, or offers to work on creating it.


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