(L to R) Three executive members of the Williams Lake Refugee Sponsorship Group: Sharon Taylor (communications), Kirsten Konge (vice-president), and Sherry Yonkman (treasurer) Photo: Rachel Taylor
(L to R) Three executive members of the Williams Lake Refugee Sponsorship Group: Sharon Taylor (communications), Kirsten Konge (vice-president), and Sherry Yonkman (treasurer) Photo: Rachel Taylor

By Sharon Taylor–

You wake up in the morning, acrid smoke already making your throat hurt. You glance out the window as you get ready for work. Every time a plane flies over, you look up and calculate how near it is and what direction it is going in.

At work, everyone is talking nervously. The computers are down—no Internet means no work. But lots of time to share news and not-quite-news: “My brother heard…” and “My boyfriend’s boss says…”

Then the daycare calls. “Come pick up your baby. We are being evacuated.” But you don’t have a car and you can’t contact your partner. A co-worker drives you to the daycare, where you meet up with a friend and then it is all rush and run and get to this place only to be told to keep moving, keep moving…

And it is 3 o’clock in the morning and you are sleeping in your car. Five hours to get 30 kilometres. It doesn’t feel safe at the rest stop surrounded by dozens of others, but it feels safer than on your own on a lonely stretch of highway. Two women and a baby are not going to feel safe anywhere.

Hours more on the road, hours waiting at a gas station for a delivery to arrive and fill all the empty cars. People are trying to be good, to be helpful, but tempers are short and the stress makes it as hard to breathe as the smoke does. And when the gas tank is full, and you get back on the road, you still don’t know where you are going…

You are a refugee.

And it all happened in hours.

As the settlement worker for Immigrant and Multicultural Services Society in Williams Lake, I have talked to people in Williams Lake, Tatla Lake, and 100 Mile House about the plight of refugees worldwide. Canadians have watched in horror as over-crowded boats tip passengers in the unforgiving ocean and seen the masses of people carrying their children and everything they have left on their backs. We have praised the volunteers and questioned the politicians. We have raised money through soup dinners and school bottle drives; numerous groups have set up sponsorship programs to bring people from all over the world to Canada.

And we have done all that with a kind of careless grace: it’s who we are. It’s what we do. Canadians in general are generous and caring people who understand that no one survives through winter’s cold, summer’s drought, and spring’s floods without their neighbours’ help.

Sixty million people around the world displaced. Twenty million of those have left their home country. Most left with nothing. They go to a nearby country offering help, or to a camp, where volunteers and workers from the UNHCR, Red Cross, Medicines sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), and hundreds of smaller or local organizations try to help with daily needs, with stress and trauma, with planning for the future.

In Kenya, one of the world’s largest refugee camps houses over 500,000 people. It has operated for over 25 years.

Last week, I was on my cell more than not – texting, talking, comforting, questioning – as my two daughters and grandson fled the forest fires in Fort McMurray. They are safe now, waiting to make the next plan. But as I talk to them, I hear this in my head, “They are always moving. Even when they are sitting still in a camp, in a tent, and there is nowhere to go back to, they keep moving.”

Patrice Gordon, a nurse-practitioner in Tatla Lake, has travelled all over the world with the International Red Cross, working through medical crises such as the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone. At a recent refugee sponsorship meeting in Tatla, she told us about Nepalese refugees whose village had been washed down a mountain. “They would go back if they could, even if there is nothing left. All the refugees I have met would go back if they could. They are always moving…”

The image was striking as we watched people evacuate Fort McMurray—88,000 people safely moved out of harm’s way in only hours. Highways jammed with cars, moving achingly slowly, or abandoned when the gas tank ran empty; fire-fighters, first responders, and police going towards what everyone else fled from. As someone pointed out on social media, if you had to evacuate a city safely, one in which the majority of workers are trained in emergency procedures is a good place to start. And the damage, while enormous, is less than it could have been. Fort McMurray is already starting to re-build.

But not all places in the world are so lucky. Sometimes everyone has to run – no one can return to save what is left. Sometimes the road is filled not with helpful strangers, but with people without conscience or heart. Sometimes, instead of offering emotional support and practical assistance, the country turns on its own people and chases them further into the wilderness. Sometimes the enemy at the gate drives people from bad to worse—from bombs dropping from the sky to guns pointed at vulnerable bodies.

In her stunning poem “Home,” Kenyan-born Somali poet Warsan Shire says,

i want to go home,

but home is the mouth of a shark

home is the barrel of the gun

and no one would leave home

unless home chased you to the shore

unless home told you

to quicken your legs

leave your clothes behind

crawl through the desert

wade through the oceans

drown

save

be hunger

beg

forget pride

your survival is more important

Canadians are good at opening their hearts and homes to their neighbours. But we need to re-think the term ‘neighbour.’ The fact is that we are now dependent on other countries for our inexpensive clothing, our furniture, and in many cases, our food. The people who supply us with things that make our lives easier and more pleasant are no longer on “the other side of world”—they are as close as our grocery stores, as our big box stores. When they are affected by extreme weather conditions, our supply lines are cut. When floods and fires and warmer oceans and nuclear incidents and civil wars occur in one place, the ripples are felt across the world.

Refugee support groups are forming in Quesnel and 100 Mile House. There are two groups in Williams Lake and one in Tatla Lake that are preparing for families to be re-settled within the year. Our Cariboo winters may be cold, but our welcome is warm. We are all neighbours now. And if we do not take care of each other, the mouth of the shark is open and waiting.

For more information about getting involved in the Williams Lake Refugee Sponsorship Group, the Sacred Heart Refugee Sponsorship Group, or the Tatla Lake Initiative for Refugee Sponsorship group, contact Sharon at (778) 412-2999 or sharont@imss.ca.

 

 

 

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