Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Erasing a Chalkboard

It has been a little over a year since Argentine and Mapendo and their families arrived in Canada. I am forever impressed by the people of Canada, and particularly the people of Athabasca, who made it possible for them to come to Canada, to build lives in safety.

 The task is enormous when you think about it. Three adults who walk on crutches, and 6 children arrived in Canada last December. Just the reality of walking on crutches in Western Canada where the snow piles up, it is a challenge. One of the first things Argentine noted about their new home was that there were no people on the street. True, to get around in Canada, you largely need a car..there aren't crowds of people walking down the streets, pushing bicycles or selling peanuts. So countless friends have filled in for these families, who find themselves without cars or driver's licenses yet. 

Neema, Mapendo's teenage neice whom Mapendo has cared for since she was young, went back to school for the first time in 5 years. Can you imagine starting 9th grade in a new country and a new language, after 5 years without school? She's done beautifully, and is so thankful for the opportunity. 

There have been a thousand questions to be navigated. How do you work a microwave, what to do when a smoke alarm goes off, why do Canadians eat bread all the time? What kinds of clothes should teenage girl's wear? It has been a fascinating year of questions.

Adjusting to a new culture, blending the old with the new, can be a challenge.   One teenage immigrant that I know was given this advice:  "Your life is like a chalkboard.  You have to erase it first."

 "All that confusion you are experiencing in a new country... it is because you are trying to write on a surface that hasn't been erased.  It won't make any sense.  You just have to erase more thoroughly," the man said.

 As though the place she came from could be erased.

 I too, have made a similar mistake. I have been tempted to post before and after pictures of Argentine and Mapendo. To show how different their lives are now.  The photos would make a great contrast.

But what story would I be telling?   The place that they came from has not ceased to exist. It is not just a "before" picture. The place they come from is forever far away. But it is also, always, with them still. Mapendo sits in her small apartment in Canada and sews African cloth, the same work she did while in Congo and in refugee camps. Her phone sits at her side and she waits for news from her mother in Congo who is sick.

 This is the truth of the world. Home does not cease to exist, just because we leave it. It is easy to see resettled refugees, in fact immigrants of all sorts, as starting their lives anew. But who is to say where one life stops and the other life starts? Mapendo is saving money to send to her mother, so she can buy medicine and get surgery in the new year. Is that part of her "old life" or her "new life"? The line only looks clear from the outside.

 Sometimes when I visit Athabasca, I hear a newfound friend asking Argentine how to say a word in Swahili. The result is always chaos and laughter. Sometimes Argentine's younger sister, Aline, joins in. She is a teenage girl, and has learned English incredibly fast, delighting in all that a new culture has to offer.  But in this particular moment she is proudly pronouncing a word in Swahili. It gives my heart hope. The Canadian friend stumbles over the Swahili pronunciation and more laughter ensues.  Maybe we won't all learn Swahili. But maybe that is not the point.

 As these newfound friends celebrate the joy of language and laughter, I think to myself that I can almost see Aline's chalkboard full of words both old and new, somehow mixed together..  I hear the strength and the pride in her voice as she pronounces that word in Swahili and then again in English.  And I am thankful, that she has found a place for both words on her chalkboard.  And nothing has been erased. 

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