I don’t consider myself an activist. Not in the way we normally pigeon-hole people at least. I’ve never felt the need to chain myself to railings (though they’re rare in the Lower Mainland) or throw myself under a racehorse for example. I’ve never even attended a rally or listened to a soap-box speaker. There are some things I feel very strongly about though. Education; women’s rights; recycling; human dignity. To name a few. A few things strike me as fundamental to who we are as a species if we claim to be superior to fungus in any way at all.
I do act on my convictions though. I donate money and time to causes I support. Scouts; young entrepreneurs; amputees; it’s an eclectic mix of course, as am I. Most recently I volunteered to the Immigrant Services Society of BC. They came into being to help BC support the large influx of refugees from Idi Amin’s, er, aberration back in 1968. Since then they have developed processes and services to help newcomers integrate and assimilate into Canadian life. All immigrants, not just refugees. However the recent Syrian situation has caused a spike in calls for their services and they put out a call for extra volunteers. I am humbled to say that BC responded well and now there’s a “better” problem in processing so many volunteers.
I’ve already had my orientation session and fulfilled the Police Criminal Record Check to make sure I’m not a danger to these vulnerable families. The government sponsored refugees are the main target for the help and they were selected as the most needy from the refugee camps around Syria’s borders. That was an important factor for me. I am open to helping anyone that needs it, but a refugee is very distinct from a migrant in my view. ISSofBC agrees and even had a slide on the differences between the two, in terms of attitudes, needs and expectations.
The next phase of training was this last week and involved a 2.5 hour session on cultural sensitivity. I always maintain that no matter how bad a training session is there’s always something to be learnt. It may not be what was intended, and indeed it may actually be about oneself, but I always try to be open to learning opportunities. Last Thursday turned out to be quite educational. Firstly there were the “expected” learnings. We were taught some generalities of Arab culture so we could avoid unnecessary irritation due to differences with “normal” Canadian expectation. One in particular was regarding time. In the west, if we arrange to meet someone at say 9am, we tend to expect them to turn up around then – unavoidable accidents aside. It seems that with our new mentees we should be prepared for some, er, fluidity in the concept of time. The phrase “God willing” should be interpreted as “maybe, possibly, if the wind is in the right direction and nothing more interesting turns up”, it seems. OK – that’s me expanding what was actually said, but “Tomorrow, if God wills it” should not be interpreted as “Yup, tomorrow for sure”. They say forewarned is forearmed, and now I know not to think I’m being snubbed or ignored. I’ll be particularly alert around things like doctor or school appointments. The flip side of this is that if you are in conversation, you are the most important thing. They miss those meetings because of the respect they have for the person they’re already with.
Some of the biggest adjustments for the newcomers are in the smallest things. We were told 95% of Syrians smoke. Now I’m quite sure that the percentage is not scientifically arrived at, but it’s indicative of the issue. When trying to find new homes for the refugees after their 2 week stay in the welcoming apartments, there’s a form (inevitably) to be filled in. One question is “Do you smoke?” They are told “If we tick YES you may be waiting 6-9 months for an apartment. If we tick NO you will have a new home within 2-3 weeks. Now… which one shall we tick?” Adjustments are needed on all sides, it seems.
The part I’m dreading though is where my personal views clash with the cultural expectations of the newcomers. I’m not religious, and have no stronger negative views around Islam than I do around Christianity. The west is far too arrogant in that regard. Check out the Dutch social experiment by “Dit Is Normaal” for an illustration of that.
However, it is true that we have SOCIAL and CULTURAL expectations that may be very different to a newcomer’s and it’s always better to avoid unnecessary conflict and distrust. We don’t all need to agree about everything even within our own society, but offence is best performed deliberately rather than accidentally! The learnings here ranged from confirmation of assumption (“under no circumstance should a male mentor touch a female in the family – even to shake hands”) to the less expected (“do not offer ANY advice about females in the family. ESPECIALLY with regards to education or employment”.) It seems that the father is not just head of the family, as might already be anticipated, but is the sole arbiter of the lives of the female members. Even offering advice about higher education opportunities of any male children can be seen as unwelcome interference. This area is going to be the most challenging for myself personally. I have strong views about women’s rights and education more generally. Cultural sensitivity is one thing. Oppression is another. It will be a real test of my mentoring and inter-personal skills. A learning opportunity yet to come.
One of the other volunteers was himself a middle eastern immigrant – there are many Persians in Vancouver – and made the point that all immigrants must follow the law of the land, no matter what their “old country” expected. This was a complete non-issue when I myself immigrated. Canada’s laws and social norms are almost entirely the same as in the UK. But as indicated at the start… I learnt a few unexpected things at the end of the session. About myself and my own sensitivities as an “outsider” – despite my blue passport.
After 90 minutes of lecture about various aspects of integration and sensitivity we were split into groups of 4 and given some case studies to talk about and present. My group was given an example of a Cambodian lady with a long name that was hard for westerners to pronounce. We were asked to consider how we might discuss any concerns with this hypothetical lady. I mentioned my experience in Taiwan where it was common for Chinese people to adopt English Christian names to help smooth business dealings with westerners. I’d found it notable because many of the names were “old” such as Ernest or Arthur, or just very unusual such as Forest, Ferry or Tiger. One lady in my group gave an example of a Chinese friend who had chosen an Anglicised name to help herself integrate. (The common thread being they’d all chosen these names themselves – the group agreed it should not be an expectation.) She’d then married a Canadian and now was known as Agnes McDougal or something.
This was all just unremarkable chit chat until the lady in the group concluded with “she ended up with such an English name!” From nowhere, my “lizard brain” felt the need to gently jibe “Actually – that’s Scottish”. I was surprised – even shocked – at myself. I consider myself pretty well integrated… and might even have said assimilated up until then, yet here I was still sensitive to subtleties of UK geography that few outside the islands know or care about. I resisted continuing with the lecture on the differences between Britain and England, but it was a not entirely pleasant reminder of the prejudices and assumptions I myself would be bringing to any interaction with Syrian refugees.
Muttering internally to myself about being more observant of my internal compass and not to get unnecessarily bent out of shape, I got the double whammy when a member of the group then suggested that our spokesperson should be “the guy with the accent”. Plainly I was – after 15 years – still not quite acceptable as a Canadian. The irony being that the suggestion came from a young Chinese-heritage lad.
Still smarting from this uncomfortable self learning I had one final jolt as I left the room. Because of the case studies, we were all largely sat in different chairs to the ones we’d sat in through the earlier sessions. We were now at the end of 2.5 hours “learning” about cultural sensitivity. I wandered back to my original chair to collect my belongings and quietly asked the lady sat there if she’d mind me disturbing her to collect my coat and jumper. “Jumper?!” she exclaimed a little too loudly, as she moved. I felt quite small for a moment. After sitting through the same sensitivity training as I had, this lady – quite accidentally and without malice I’m sure – mocked my use of a common English word not typically used in North America. I had just received a timely reminder that feeling “other” is a way more subtle and nuanced situation that how you look, or even the language you speak. Offence and sensitivities can be caused in such casual accidental ways… even after being trained on how not to do it!
I left feeling more educated than I expected, and slightly more self-aware of my own limitations.