My first personal refugee experience happened about thirty years ago and, not surprisingly, was facilitated by a Holy Names Sister. Sr. Antoinette Janisse was the Pastoral Minister at my parish of St. Anne in Tecumseh and, just a few days before Christmas, she called to ask if I knew anyone who would take in a young man who had escaped from El Salvador and was being held in detention. “Douglas” remained with us for several months and gave my family a unique education.
During the Vietnam War, my family and I worked closely with the Quash family who had escaped by boat and were now being sponsored by our parish. I later succeeded Sister Antoinette as Pastoral Minister at St. Anne and had the opportunity to direct the proceeds of the Christmas Giving Tree to the Refugee Office every year. For many years, my only experience with refugees was second hand; listening to the stories of Sr. Antoinette, Sr. Helen and other Holy Name Sisters.
Late last year, I approached Claire to explore the possibility of doing some volunteer work with the Refugee Center. Anyone who knows Claire will recognize how she responded; with warmth, enthusiasm and great encouragement. I really didn’t know how I could be of service, but Claire and I chatted and we decided that an ad hoc arrangement would suit us best.
I have no regular schedule at the office, but Claire would call on me as needed. She made it very clear to me that, whenever she called me, I was the one to decide if I was willing and able to take on the new task. This arrangement continues to this day and serves us both very well. I have a husband, six children, 12 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren so Claire is very respectful of my limitations.
In January [Claire wasted no time], I met my first refugee family; a Syrian family of five newly arrived in Canada who needed shoes. During that shopping trip, I made a new friend. Reem and I bonded as mothers whose first priority was their children’s well-being. Later my family and I helped this family to furnish their first home in Windsor.
Since that time, I have worked with families from the Congo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Colombia. In the beginning, I wasn’t sure how I would handle the emotional toil this would have on me. I have shed some tears in private and lost some sleep, but chats with Claire have helped me keep perspective and I find I am able to connect very easily with the people I work with.
I relate most with the mothers and fathers who sacrifice everything for their children’s futures. Their stories astound and humble me. They have experienced evil and cruelty we can only imagine; bombings, imprisonments, woundings, loss of families and so much more. For me, the hardest stories to hear are those of parents who have had to leave their children behind and spend all their energy and resources trying to get their families here to Windsor.
This past year, I have become a regular at Goodwill, Value Village and Kijiji, shopping to meet the needs of my new friends. My extended family and friends know I am always on the look-out for furnishings, clothing and other goodies. My world has become so much bigger and richer with every encounter and the bonus is that it has become a family affair. Many of my family help in collecting and delivering whatever is needed, and we all know the location and hours of all the Food Banks in our area.
Little did I know a year ago the new friends I would meet, how my world would expand and how much richer my life would become.
I AM GRATEFUL.
When I returned from Malawi and re settled in Windsor, after wandering around London looking for a place where I could use my gifts, – I was attracted to stop into the Refugee office and see if this would be a ministry where I could be involved.
The warm welcome which I received from Claire and Gilbert was quite tangible and inviting….so I proceeded to get the required Police clearance and began assisting students who were off for the summer break with some extra English classes. After the summer, I stayed on accompanying and tutoring women after their classes at the various schools they were attending..
This past year, I have taken on assisting with the Sponsorship program and have had numerous opportunities of meeting new arrivals at the Windsor Airport along with their sponsoring families. This indeed is a delightful scene and I am grateful to be one of the first Canadian people to ‘welcome our new arrivals’ to our country.
Following my 6 years working in Malawi with Scarboro Missionaries, I grew in my awareness that ‘we are all neighbors and brothers and sisters of one another’ and I wanted to be known as a person of Welcome during these days when our world is in such turmoil.
I stay volunteering because it is the place where I am my best self…..I am most grateful for all the people that I have met these past couple of years and feel blessed because I have made many new friends.
I first became aware of the Windsor Refugee Office through a long time teaching colleague. She had retired a few years before me and had begun volunteering at the Refugee Office. Listening to her experiences sparked my interest and I decided to look into volunteering here as well.
When I retired from teaching, I contacted Sr. Helen and we arranged to meet. She explained to me, in general terms, about the people I would be helping and suggested a number to jobs she needed help with. I have always enjoyed working directly with people and, with my teaching and counseling background, I asked to work helping refugees with their stories.
Within a very short time, after meeting a number of refugee families and individuals, I realized that I was getting so much more out of this experience than I had ever expected. I was meeting the most amazing people. I was helping to document the struggles they had endured – surviving horrible situations in their homeland and facing extreme difficulties in fleeing. Yet, everyone I worked with had such a wonderful spirit – a strong will to survive, to be able to live a better, happier life. I originally began this job focusing on what I might have to offer the refugees and how I could help them. I learned quickly that I was receiving so much more than I was giving. I have learned so much about the human ability to suffer greatly and still remain hopeful and determined to rise above the suffering and start a new life.
Our leaders, Sr. Helen (now replaced by Claire) and Gilbert, are warm, caring and supportive people who have given me good guidance helping me be successful at this volunteer job. They also are wonderful, fun people to work with!
I am proud to protect refugees because I am impressed with the amount of hope and faith the refugees have in spite of what they have endured. When I see this in every single refugee that I deal with, it makes me want to be a better person. It makes me want to continue being part of their success stories.
Working as a volunteer at the Refugee Ministry is very meaningful for me. I have learned so much about the world I live in. I have learned that, unfortunately, most of the world is not peaceful and free like Canada.
The people who come here as refugees are survivors, people who value their families, who value Canada and the amazing freedoms we take for granted. The people I have had the privilege of meeting and assisting are, by and large, hard working and willing to persevere.
When I see the stress that refugees suffer, it puts any difficulties that I may have in life in perspective. I am quite in awe of what it takes to go from home to a foreign land, a foreign language, a foreign culture, and try to make a new life.
I have learned gratitude for the gifts that I have been given, and the live I have. I am grateful for what my parents sacrificed so that I could enjoy the opportunities and democracy in Canada.
The most difficult part of volunteering with refugees is sharing their anxiety and heartbreak during different stages of the process of applying for sanctuary in Canada. Parents separated from their children is terribly painful. Some have to wait years to see their children again. Even after years of effort and prayer, some are never successful in this. I am helpless to change situations, but can only empathize and pray for them. That’s very difficult.
People I have had a small share in helping through this office have repaid me a thousand times over in their thanks, their prayers and their gratitude