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I dropped in on our local English training centre for newcomers to Canada today. It wasn’t a planned visit, but I was having a conversation at a downtown coffee shop about how the Syrian families we sponsored are doing, and I said something to the effect of, “Well, they’re across the street right now in English classes. Wanna wander over there and see?”  Off we went.

We arrived around lunchtime and were graciously treated to an impromptu tour of the facility by the director. All around there was a buzz of activity and the delightful strains of a multiplicity of languages as the students finished their morning’s work and began to prepare their lunches. The smells were incredible. I thought about the sandwich and yogurt awaiting me back at the office and scowled internally.

I saw a few familiar faces waving eagerly at me. It was so neat to see these dear people that stepped off a plane in this strange land only one short month ago, now with notebooks in hand, smiling, showing me what they were learning, talking about their kids, smiling some more. “Coffee?” they asked. It doesn’t matter where or when or under what circumstances we get together; I am always offered coffee by my Syrian friends. And I’ve learned that the only answer to this questions is “yes, of course.”

We made our way to a table with our paper cups and instant coffee where they introduced me to another Syrian couple that was with them. These two were a bit further along in their journey with the English language, so conversation was slightly easier. The questions were the usual ones: “Where are you from?” “How did you come to Canada?” “How long have you been here?” “Do you have any kids?” This is relatively familiar terrain and I was able to traverse it with little difficulty.

Then things took a turn. “Do you have family back in Syria or Lebanon?” I asked the young woman with a timid smile. The smile left her face. She told me the stories of losing a mother and two brothers… of bombs falling from the sky… of her one brother (Christ have mercy) having limbs blown off and dying slowly because there was nowhere to get medical treatment. All around, the lively multilingual conversation, the smiles and laughter, the clanging of dishes and forks and spoons continued to buzz and swirl about. But our table was quiet. Me and six Syrians looking absently at our coffee cups, playing with our stir sticks, shaking our heads, nothing left to say about things that should never need to be spoken about.

I wondered how it was possible that people should have to make their way in the world with such stories lodged in their souls?

I rode the bus in my hometown for the first time yesterday. Growing up here, nobody took the bus. And by “nobody,” I mean “nobody like me.” Obviously. There was no need. The bus was for poor people. Or immigrants. Yesterday, I rode along with my Syrian friends to make sure they knew where to get on and off. The closer we got to the downtown area, the more colourful the faces getting on the bus got. Brown faces, black faces, obviously-from-different-places faces. Many of them were going to the same English classes as my Syrian friends. There were shy smiles and awkward English “hello’s” from all these faces from all these different places.

I thought about all these faces as I left today. I thought about how easy it can be to look at faces and attach labels to them. “Immigrant.” “Refugee.” “Foreigner.” “People who ride the bus.” But behind each of those faces is a story. This is a truism, yes, of course it is. But it’s also a deep and abiding truth that is all too easy to forget. Faces can be masks for horrors that many of us can scarcely contemplate. Faces can conceal far more than they reveal.  Faces only tell the smallest parts of any story.

And there are, come to think of it, no such things as “immigrants” or “refugees” or “foreigners” or “people who ride the bus.” There are only human beings with human stories. And, as grace would have it, opportunities for these faces and stories to mix and mingle and laugh and cry together. Or stare absently at paper cups with instant coffee, struck dumb by stories that should never have to be told.

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. I love your story, it was sad but also beautiful at the same time. Your words touched my heart, and I could picture in my mind the faces of all different colors mixed together as the friends that they should be. You have a beautiful heart ❤

    February 3, 2016
  2. ” … sorrow, and love, flow mingled down …”

    February 3, 2016
  3. Tanya #

    Thank you for riding the bus Ryan. Thank you for asking the questions. Thank you for writing their stories…

    February 3, 2016
  4. You describe a bouquet of faces and if I think of it that way, they become a collection of beautiful blossoms that we can love and appreciate, not those derogatory words that seem to be so common these days. Thank you for this touch of humanity in an otherwise thoughtless world today.

    February 4, 2016
  5. Thank you all for your very kind words. Truly appreciated.

    February 4, 2016
  6. Howard wideman #

    Canada the land of peace needs to give refuge to even more people from war torn countries. Sudburian families r so generous as we collect household goods for St. Peter’s united church expected family of 7

    February 6, 2016
  7. Paul Johnston #

    Looking at your body of writing regarding the, “refugee/neighbour” issue, it still comes back to the same question, for me. How do we reconcile mercy with accountability?

    My first spiritual instincts are to help those in need as I encounter them. To do unto others as I would hope they would do unto me. To be a, “good Samaritan”. Yet what of those systems and institutions that provoke violence, poverty and dislocation of people’s? How are we to deal with them? If we offer no spiritual direction here, how are we to influence those among us who see our actions as naive, or worse, abetting the enemies of God?

    What you do here, Ryan and what your example challenges us to do elsewhere, is no doubt, right and true but we need a more comprehensive outlook if we are to have influence with many other Christians who fear the outcomes of our charity?

    February 8, 2016
    • I hear what you’re saying, Paul. Welcoming the stranger can certainly seem like a band-aid solution that fails to consider much larger and more intractable questions about what’s producing the wounds in the first place.

      I don’t have any comprehensive outlook for you, I’m afraid. Systems and institutions are notoriously difficult to change, especially evil ones. And even when they are thought to be defeated, as was the case in Iraq and countless other times and places with powers and principalities throughout history, they tend to reappear in different, equally evil guises later on.

      Would I prefer to address the source of the problems driving this present refugee crisis? Would I prefer some solution that allows people to stay and thrive and grow where they are planted? Absolutely. Do I see such a solution coming in a way that doesn’t involve long decades of bloodshed and human dislocation and all kinds of spin-offs into other forms of evil and lust for power and control? Nope, I don’t.

      So, in the meantime, I ask, “What would Christ have me do? What would Christ have the church do?” And “welcome the stranger, the war-weary, the desperate, the starving, the poor…” seems high on the list.

      February 10, 2016
      • Paul Johnston #

        ‘What would Christ have me do?” Surely this is where we begin….with prayer…a listening prayer…and then we wait.

        Doing, while we wait. Helping as he helped. Healing as he healed. Inspiring as he inspired. Forgiving as he forgave.

        How quickly I become hard hearted when I do not rest/pray in His divine mercy.

        “Repent and believe”, good Ash Wednesday words. Good words for everyday.

        Thank you for all you do that nourishes my faith.

        February 10, 2016

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