I have never been a refugee. We came to Canada as immigrants, from Ireland, in the mid 1950s, and I have been honoured to have been a Canadian citizen for most of my life.
But I have seen and met refugees at first hand, in Bosnia in 1996 (when I was an election observer) and in Serbia in 2001-2003 (when I worked on a US-funded community revitalization program). My role has been primarily as ‘witness’, seeing and listening and sharing stories. Often it feels like a very small thing, although I know it is a part of helping make people aware of situations they would not otherwise know about.
For a long time, after Bosnia in 1996, I did not know what to do with the pain I felt after seeing and meeting people who had been forced to flee their homes by conflict. Their pain seemed so overwhelming that to talk about my pain seemed self-indulgent and self-serving, and I worried about appropriating their stories, about not adequately conveying their stories to others.
I struggled with the question of what I would have done, had I been in the shoes of those in Bosnia who faced existential questions about their lives. If someone came to my village, and told me to kill my neighbour or be killed myself, what would I have done? This question, in particular, haunted me as I read books about the conflict in Bosnia after I returned home.
I did not have anyone to talk to about it who really understood. Once, at a Worldworks seminar I attended in Oregon with a friend, I was part of a small group where it felt like maybe I could share some of what I was feeling. I began to talk about what I had seen and felt. I linked it with stories I had been hearing about family violence, while I worked with a women’s group in Yellowknife.
But it was not long before people in the group began to respond. One woman held her stomach and said I can’t deal with this pain. Others said similar things. I could not respond, too close to tears. I left the group, and went for a long walk along the beach.
A man who was part of the group told me that he wished I had continued speaking, that there were young women in the group who worked with victims of violence who had not spoken in the group but had wanted to hear what I said. That made me feel worse, in some ways.
But in the time since then, I have come to realize the power of being a witness. It is something that some of my friends, like Mary Alice Arthur, see as being my role in life.
In Serbia, our project’s role was to work with communities to help them decide on projects that would improve community life, in infrastructure, social and economic development. As part of my work, I often went to meetings and workshops held by others, and that is where I met a group of women who were refugees from Kosovo and who were living at a collective centre in Uzice.
Some months after I had met them, they came to visit me at our office. They asked if I would come and visit them and see where and how they lived now.
I told them that our project could not help them – it was not a humanitarian aid project. They said they understood that; they just wanted me to visit.
So I did, taking along a young woman from our office as interpreter. They welcomed us to the centre, and asked if we would like coffee. This is a staple of Serbian hospitality; every time you visit, people bring you cold clear water and then coffee, made in a small pot and served in small cups.
I said yes, thank you. And shortly thereafter, the women brought a small silver tray, with a lace cloth, and two small cups of coffee. There must have been 20 women in the room, but there were only two cups of coffee.
I found it very hard to drink that cup of coffee, especially after having seen how people lived in the centre.
I asked what kind of help they needed. They wanted a clean rug for the floor so the children could play on it, some toys for the children, cleaning supplies for the small shared bathroom (tiny as a phone booth), and backpacks for those children who were going to school so they could carry their books.
My young colleague, on our way back to the office, said “we must help”. I agreed. She came back to the office and told others what she had seen, and they began organizing the community to help with food and other supplies. I offered to cover the cost of backpacks that would be given at cost by a local store.
We want back to visit again, but this time we brought coffee with us (which is something Serbians do as a matter of course, so no one is embarrassed by not being able to meet the demands of hospitality) and small treats for the children.
I asked friends to help organize a visit out into the country near Uzice, where the children could swim and play and eat food barbecued over a fire. The children had not been outside the centre, apart from going to school, since they had arrived in Uzice.
I took pictures by the score, and when I got them developed, I got two sets of them and put one set in an album that I brought to the centre. One of the things that people lose, when they flee their home, is pictures – although some people had one or two pictures of the home they had once had in Kosovo.
I did not see the women again until I was leaving Uzice after my contract had been ended by the agency I worked for. The people I worked with had a farewell party for me, and they asked who I would like to invite.
I asked if they would invite some of the women from the collective centre, but please to tell them not to bring any presents – as I knew they didn’t have much.
When the women came to the party, held in a room above a local restaurant, I went over to welcome them. I had been concerned that they might not feel welcome.
They thanked me for the chance to get dressed up – something they rarely had – and to go to a party.
And they presented me with a small, beautiful white rug that they had woven – something I treasure still.
As Canada prepares to welcome 25,000 Syrian refugees sponsored by the government, along with thousands of others who are being brought to Canada through private sponsorships, I remember the people I met in Bosnia and Serbia. I remember that sense of helplessness, in terms of being able to address their situations. I also remember the power of that simple human connection, across the differences of our situations.
There is little I can do these days to help in addressing the worst refugee situation the world has faced since the second world war. What I can do is to be a witness, to share the stories of the refugees that are told by others, to shed tears, and to collect and curate the stories of those around the world who are welcoming the refugees and helping them find new homes and the hope of a better life ahead.
It does not make up for the loss of one’s home, often the loss of members of one’s family, the loss of one’s community, the loss of one’s country. But it bears witness to the pain and to the hope of a safe life for one’s children – and that, too, is a role we can all play.