Arrived: First of Our Long Awaited Refugee Families!

Or Shalom, Vancouver’s East-Side Shul, the synagogue I serve as spiritual leader, is a community of 200 households that has raised funds and the volunteer enthusiasm to sponsor four refugee families, including eight children. Three Kurdish Syrian families remain in harms way in Turkey and Northern Iraq, but one family, an LGBT couple from Iraq, has finally, finally arrived after a long journey from Beirut to Cairo to Toronto to Vancouver. Our sponsorship is the result of a fundraising effort that quickly and easily raised more than the synagogue’s annual campaign total, and a great deal more in in-kind donations, from embroidered pillow cases to used cell phones to furniture to reduced residential rent, as well as donations of time. A resettlement team has formed around each family.

The poignancy of greeting our first couple at the airport was powerful, and I understood that we were making history. These two men are free, safe, secure, no longer under threat of persecution, no longer refugees, but citizens of Canada. Last Shabbat, as our new couple settled into their apartment, we celebrated with an aliyah to the Torah for leaders of our refugee initiative. Their aliyah was the last in the book of Bamidbar, which means “In the Wilderness.” The wilderness wandering of two brave men had come to a close.

The community is kvelling, but as my lens shifts from images of milk and honey in a new homeland to the advent of Tisha B’Av and related emphasis on loss of homeland, I realize that our new Canadian citizens, and the three families yet to arrive, are also exiles; they have gained Canada, but they have lost homes that have been decimated and desecrated by civil wars. Iraq and Syria, cradles of civilization, centers of great culture and learning, may never recover. And the dream of what’s been lost in the shift of paradigms that war and flight has imposed will be a source of lasting pain for these peoples, as it is for us – Jews still lamenting the destruction of a world we will never return to, still holding images of Zion as an ideal, as an axis mundi.

Crisis forces us to grow and change. Our tradition teaches that it is when we are most broken that healing is possible. That is why Tisha B’Av marks the beginning of the period of our Days of Awe, and the return to truest self we aspire to on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. In Jewish history there is a correlation between crisis and transformation, repeated exiles catalyzing the evolution of Judaism. We’ve packed our households and hit the road, opening new chapters in countless lands, largely flourishing in exile/new homelands. Perhaps this is why we have such faith that these families from Iraq and Syria will succeed, indeed flourish, in the promised land of British Columbia. We have a core of optimism.

But I think it will be wise to also remember our story of pain, our own shocks and devastations, our own sense of dislocation, the challenges to our security, the fear of loosing our traditions to assimilation. As a people, we understand the power of memory, even the power of lament. We know what it is to make space for expression of loss. It’s our understanding of the balance between inconsolable loss and opportunity for new flourishing that will enable us to be of particular support to the new citizens of Canada we have welcomed into our community, and of support to the families that will follow.

Photo Credit: Dave Kauffman

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