Refugees need time to say goodbye and time to say hello

by Linda Moorcroft

My family is getting ready to say good-bye to a much loved family member. He is lingering longer than anticipated. The cancer has taken full hold of his body and days are now filled with pain, tears, frustration, anxiety and exhaustion. At times we pray for a speedy parting and yet we recognize the gift of being able to say good-bye.

Recently I came across this quote – it takes a minute to say hello and a life time to say goodbye. How true this is as we say good-bye to my dear uncle.

Christie House in Toronto welcomes refugees from around the world.
Christie House in Toronto welcomes refugees from around the world.

However, 20 years of working with the world’s displaced has taught me that the opposite is true for refugees.

Refugees have only minutes to say good-bye to their homes, family, countries, jobs – all that is familiar and all that they hold dear.

Snatched from their home countries with those instant farewells, families can spend months, if not years, in refugee camps, countries of asylum or even in countries of resettlement, learning to say hello.

Hello includes acclimatizing to new and different cultures. Hello requires building new relationships, friendships and communities. Hello demands letting go of the many losses and clutching the hand of their welcoming countries.

During the past nine months as the Syrian refugee crisis has gripped our country and the Church, I have been inspired and heartened as I have witnessed congregations jumping at the chance to say hello to refugees. Canadian churches have opened their doors, hearts, and pocketbooks to welcome the stranger. Churches are embracing the call to privately sponsor a Syrian family and standing in line for their welcome and hello.

This comparison of hello/good-bye reminds me of an Albanian family who came through the Christie Refugee Welcome Centre almost a decade ago. A woman and her two sons arrived homeless and seemingly helpless.

Through a translator we heard a story of a hasty good-bye at an Italian port where a husband and another son were left behind because there was not passage for the whole family on a departing ship. Quick good-byes, hugs, tears, and words were shared. It would be years before they would be together. These intermittent years were filled with anxiety, uncertainty, frustration and loneliness.

However, the family members in Canada  embraced their new life. Jobs, schooling, peace and stability spawned dreams of the family being together again on one side of the ocean. Five years later I stood at the airport as this family was finally reunited. Lots of tears, lots of joy, lots of love.

As the Church embarks on this renewed calling to welcome refugees, I ask you to give refugees time to say goodbye. Listen as they tell you about life in their countries. Listen as they cry for loved ones left behind. Listen through the pain and tears as they share their story of escape. Listen as they linger in their goodbyes.

I also want to remind you that their hello will not be instantaneous. Take time to introduce them to their new country. Take time to build friendships. Take time to understand the pain and suffering they have experienced. Take time to listen to their hopes and aspirations. It may take a lifetime to really say hello to a refugee.

As my uncle lives his final days on this earth, we are hoping for a speedy good-bye. After all, we have a life time of memories. We have a life time with him as husband, father, grandfather, brother and uncle. We’ve had a life time with a man of faith now ready to meet his Maker. We’ve had a lifetime to say good-bye.

Linda Moorcroft is the executive director of Christie Refugee Welcome Centre in Toronto. Read our Faith Today story on how to help a refugee family. 

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