"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Before I went to Zurich and trained to become a Jungian analyst, I was a Guidance Counsellor in a large urban secondary school. My case load was the English as a Second Language (ESL) students. As such, it was my privilege and duty to register adolescent students from countries all over the world. If you wanted to know the hot spots on the globe, you only needed to look at my case load. Each September, my office was the threshold for these students. Newly landed immigrants. Refugees. Never illegals. Canada has prided itself and rightly so, for being a refuge for the poor huddled masses. We don’t have a statue in the Halifax harbour, but we do have a long standing commitment to immigration. Our diversity is our strength. Our Prime Minster, Justin Trudeau, just this week. reaffirmed this humanitarian commitment in light of recent orders from Washington.
My office in the 90s was a small slice of this commitment. There was the year of the Chinese. The year of the Russians. The year of the Somalians. The year of the Kurds. The year of the Syrians. I loved my job. I loved being a beacon of humanity in an often inhumane world. While the first order of business was usually the registration and appropriate placement, the more important business, I believed, was receiving the stories. More often than not the stories were traumatic. Especially for the girls. Always, especially for the girls! With or without interpreters, I managed to welcome, receive, and settle these new Canadians. I was good at my job. It was the perfect training to answer the call to the analyst way some years later. So many stories. So much trauma. So much resilience. Such gratitude for small kindnesses.
I remember swallowing my surprise when I discovered that the 17 and 18 year old Somalian students were illiterate. They could not read and write in their own language, let alone in English. They had been unschooled. Their formative years were spent in determent or refugee camps. But, such pride they carried. Such resilience. They had endured much and their dreams matched in depth and breadth what their traumas carved out of their young lives. It was a fine balance to preserve the pride, foster the big dreams, and awaken them to the realities of this new land. I still have contact with the three Somalian sisters I registered on that first hot September day: Eden, Maila, and Faduma. These beautiful black girls with silken braids and brightly coloured clothing taught me as much as I dared to believe I taught them. “You are so white!” they exclaimed.
Oh, and there was Maria and her family. What a story. They walked from Iran to Iraq to Turkey and finally to Greece. Through the snow covered mountains. A journey that took more than a year. A mother, a father, and 9 small children. Maria was the oldest of the children. She is the keeper of the stories. In my English as a Second Language classroom, assembled primarily because there was no where else to put them, I taught these new Canadians enough English to begin to tell the stories. We were a small United Nations. Reading fairytales. Listening to music. Cooking meals. Sharing stories with gestures and drama and dance and drums, and paint and pen. I utilized whatever was available to bring us to a shared understanding. Those were sacred times. I remember that first year when we gifted Maria and her family with grocery store vouchers at Christmas. The teachers in this affluent high school held a silent auction each year to raise funds for our Needy Students Fund. It was a win win endeavour. The teachers were encouraged and invited to share their gifts with one another in the staff room at lunchtime.
Tables upon tables of art. Unexpected giftedness. The math teacher who crafted fine wooden pens. The gym teacher who was a master knitter. The English teacher who baked the best butter tarts in the land. The administrator who painted pet portraits. All the items were donated by the creators. The money that was raised was given back to the students who needed it most. It was such a community building endeavour and by far, my favourite extracurricular responsibility. It was not a hard sell. The teacher artists donated willingly and generously and the other teachers paid well for the one of a kind artisan gifts. It was a way to see and be seen.
All the while knowing they were contributing in a real way to the homeless tempest tossed of the world, of our country, of our school. I didn’t know it then, but art and trauma brought together builds bridges. I won an award from my Federation for this initiative. I was humbled by the recognition and used the cash prize to host a conference organized by these young people. It was called Stuff Happens. We wanted to call it Shit Happens, but as supportive as my principal was, the edit did not dampen the success of the multicultural conference. It was a conference that celebrated art and used it as a medium for expression. I understand it still runs in the county.
Because of my case load, I was the one commissioned by my colleagues to discretely offer the gifts to the students whom I identified as needy. Maria and her family topped my list. I remember calling her into my office and giving her the grocery store vouchers. I explained that it was a gift from her teachers to her family. I was careful not to step on her fierce pride. “Perhaps you can buy some special treats for the little ones” I offered. She shyly accepted the gift. She thanked me profusely. She told me again and again how good Canada was. In my simple English and her broken mix of Kurdish, Greek and Turkish, she wished me and my family a happy holiday. My heart was full.
What I did not expect, was the invitation that arrived the next day. A beautifully hand crafted invitation, signed by each of the family, Including the scribbles of the little ones, invited me and my family to dinner. She was asking my family to come to dinner and share in the abundance gifted to her family by her teachers. Why is it that those with so little offer so much? How could I refuse? I checked in with my principal about boundaries and protocol, but when he read the hand crafted invitation, he agreed that if I was willing, I had his permission to attend.What an evening! Me, my husband, and our youngest son were the guests of honour bar none.
Maria’s father explained what an honour it was to his family that a teacher would come to his home. He explained how it honoured him and gave him honour in his community. In a tenement a few blocks from the school, in the middle of Southwestern Ontario, we were welcomed into the Kurdish community like we were celebrities. And perhaps we were. Sitting crossed legged on the floor before a Persian rug of steaming and fragrant delights, I have never felt so welcomed. They even bought and roasted a turkey because they understood that is what Canadians ate at Christmas. A golden door indeed. That’s the secret. When we open the golden door, the treasures are mutual.
Every couple of years, my husband and I go to Maria’s home for a Persian feast. She is now married to a beautiful Somalian man and the proud mama of two beautiful daughters. She still calls me Mrs McMahon despite my insistence that she call me Muriel. The last time we were there, she surprised me and Eden, Maila, and Faduma were there too. It has been some twenty years since we shared the high school guidance office or the ESL classroom. So much has come and gone for each of us. This night, as we women sat apart from the men and shared tea and stories, I was reminded of the resilience and strength of women. Our laughter was so honest. Our stories so full. Our love for each other so genuine. No competition. No holding back. Each seeing and being seen. Each one of us a shining star in a black firmament. Eden is now a registered nurse. Malia is a clothes designer. Faduma is an illustrator for a major magazine. Maria is a community matriarch.
During this last visit, Maria read my tea leaves.She told me many things. She told me about myself, about my family, about my work, and about the world. So, when I turn to my keyboard, or my privileged platform of education and affluence, I remember these stories. I remember these women. I remember the Lady of the Exiled who still stands in the New York harbour. And I pray, like I have never prayed before, that the lamp of liberty will never be extinguished. Not by any man