Not Just a Refugee

I wake up several times the night she is coming. I think about her and her small daughter leaving the refugee camp. Do they cry when they leave? To whom do they say goodbye  and what words of advice are they given? What are they carrying in their suitcases? Are they ready to exchange flip-flops and red dust for snow boots and ice? Do Almas* and Eliana* wonder if they’ll ever see African soil again or how many years will pass before they return? Perhaps Canada will make old women out of both of them and the image of white United Nations tents will seem like nothing more than a distant dream.

The next morning I check my Facebook account and look for pictures. Mara*, another women from our local sponsorship group, has made the 2-hour drive to the airport to pick them up and I’m hoping she’s already posted something. I scroll through my feed until I see a shot of blond curls next to black hair. Eagerly, I click to see more. There is another photo of Mara reaching for a smiling woman with corn-row braids. It must be her! Almas and Eliana are finally here! And they are real! This woman and her daughter, whose names we’ve been mispronouncing for months, for whom we’ve been planning, decorating an apartment, raising money, and praying, have finally arrived.

The first time we visit them in their new apartment Almas immediately hugs my girls and plants kisses all over their cheeks. The girls stiffen at the outpouring of wet affection but tolerate it without pulling away too quickly. Four-year-old Eliana keeps running her fingers through Belén’s straight hair while chattering in Amharic. Almas reminds her daughter that Belén can’t understand Amharic but it doesn’t seem to matter much to Eliana, she keeps trying to play with the flat-haired white girl who can’t talk properly, anyway.

I grab Eliana’s hand and pull her onto my lap. She is probably too old for cutesy baby rhymes, but I don’t know what else to do so I start bouncing my legs up and down and slowly chant, “Pace goes the lady, the lady, the lady…” Eliana doesn’t squirm off like I thought she might so I keep going. By the end she is giggling and trying to intone the rhyme along with me, experimenting with the weird English sounds she hears all around her.

Almas smiles. I smile. We laugh. And then it is silent again. There is so much to say but no way to say it. I have so many questions for her: How did she get chosen to come to Canada? What was it like to live in a refugee camp for years? How was the food? What hardships has she had to endure? Where are her parents, her siblings? What has she seen of war and violence? Of beauty and healing?

I will find out some of the answers later. Slowly over the next few months she will tell me about the food rations, about the dirt floors and tents, about carrying water, and about living with 3000 other people. Eventually I will hear snippets of her story and try to piece things together but for now all she can do is offer me tea.

Between sips of very sweet tea and polite smiles we forge ahead. I ask the same questions she’ll hear a million more times: “Do you like Canada? Is it too cold?” We figure out how old we all are by holding up fingers and then the conversation stalls. What I really want to communicate is the heart-swell inside me; how I admire her courage and resilience, how I recognize this move has changed her life forever, how I would love to know more about what she left behind and what she dreams for the future. I point to her and say her name. “Almas. You strong.”

She doesn’t respond. She is watching me and smiling but I can tell my message isn’t registering.

“You. Your heart.” I make a heart shape with my fingers in the air and wonder if I’m confusing her even further. Do Eritrean people refer to the heart as their emotional/spiritual centre? Maybe it’s their stomach? Or their intestines? I get the feeling she doesn’t understand so I finally bang on my chest with a flat hand and point quickly to her. “You. Your heart. Strong.” I yank on my sleeves, roll them up, and clench my fist to show my muscles. It all feels a little ridiculous but my throat is tight and there are tears warming my eyes. I look at her eyes and smile and know she knows. She understands.

“Yes, I understand,” she says. “I strong.”

Every day that passes both of them learn more and more. I show them how the washing machine works, how water runs cold or hot (you choose!) at the push of the button, and we lift up Eliana so she can feel the rushing water pour into the washer. When their very first load is done Almas inspects the bottom side of a pair of white socks, then holds them up disapprovingly so I can see too. As far as I can tell there is nothing wrong. They look like all of my children’s socks after they come out of the washer, but Almas is not impressed.

“No clean. I wash.” She mimes scrubbing the socks by hand and shakes her head.

I imagine her doing all her laundry in her bathtub with a scrub brush and quickly respond, “No, no no. It’s okay. In Canada socks can be little dirty.” I hold up my fore-finger and thumb to show what I mean. “A little dirty is okay. No wash socks by hand. Too hard. Canada LAZY.”

The socks go into the dryer to my relief.

The lessons continue over the next few weeks. Even though I don’t speak her language, I still feel like a translator when we are out in the community and she experiences, or hears, something new. I show her how to climb up the hill after we sled down it. (You have to dig your heels in and plant your feet like this.) She asks me about “homeschooling”. (This was a tough one–coming from a camp where thousands of kids ran wild with no opportunity for formal education she couldn’t grasp why parents would choose not to send their children school.) And I try to explain what my friends are talking about when they use words like “down-size” and the “forty bag challenge”. (When people have so much they can fill forty bags with stuff they don’t need.) Viewing our culture through her perspective is almost like being a newcomer myself and I realize how crazy life is here. But it’s not just with other people I notice things don’t make sense, it’s in my own home too.

When she sees Vivian’s (Almas and Eliana nick-name her Veh-vou) nursery for the first time she seems surprised.

“Vehvou sleep here? All alone?” Almas asks.

Then Eliana, wide-eyed and pointing to the crib, says, “Vehvou cry, cry, cry?”

I can tell Eliana isn’t fooled by the gingham curtains that match the change pad that match the rocker that match the wall-hanging; none of the cuteness masks the real problem. She’s thinking about our barbaric parenting practise of making our young sleep alone. In a wooden cage to boot.

“Wow. Verrry nice,” says Almas rolling her r’s. “Verrry nice. Vehvou room verry nice.”

I have a knot in my stomach as we survey my baby room. How can something I thought I needed, something I thought was so necessary that I deserved for my last child, suddenly seem luxurious, and even frivolous? I look around, with new eyes, at the space that could provide shelter for an entire family.

We don’t linger for long in the nursery though; when Almas is at my place she doesn’t waste time before grabbing a broom, or a cloth, or finding some laundry to fold. In fact I have never seen anyone deep clean with such speed and vigor. She wields her broom like a weapon and when I ask her to sit and have a drink she cannot be persuaded to quit cleaning. “You help me, I help you. Like sistah. You know? Like sistah!”

Now it’s my turn to say I understand.

“Yes, like a sister,” I repeat while shelving our unused coffee cups and picking up a cloth.

One weekend I take her to a women’s retreat at my church. While we are singing I steal a glance at her and see she is radiant. Her face is lifted upward and there are tears running down her cheeks but she is smiling. I move closer because I want to be nearer to her and the Spirit that is making her glow. A bit later we are supposed to work through a sheet of questions but there are too many complicated English terms so I ask about her experience with God instead, and am amazed at her story. Then she prays for me; never before have I been lifted up with such commitment and passion. As I listen to her consult with God in Amharic and hear her voice rumble low and steady, her words punctuated by inflections and strange clicks, I am convinced that if God’s gonna listen to anybody it’s going to be her.

After, while we visit with some of the other ladies one of them asks us how Almas and I met. I pause for a moment before explaining how I am part of a sponsorship team that brought Almas to Canada. As soon as I say it I know why my response feels uncomfortable and awkward. It’s true that only months ago we were separated by an ocean and the bulk of two continents, and it’s also true that Almas waited there for years in a refugee camp, but today we sit side-by-side, calling on Heaven together. No, Almas isn’t just a refugee; a better description for her would be “gift”.


Coffee time at Alma’s house–on the floor and five cups each!

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*Names changed for privacy



3 thoughts on “Not Just a Refugee

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