Standing on the skyline of our community

April 15, 2020

Every day, for a dozen years, I’ve parked behind IRCOM. Never paying much attention to the building or the back lane, I’ve always directed my thoughts ahead to my work. That is, until a few days ago when I paused, and looked up at the tower of IRCOM Isabel.

If I didn’t know better, I’d liken it to a fortress – dark, metallic, and unbreakable. The structure itself doesn’t exude much warmth, but I’m fortunate to know that behind that façade lives a community that calls it home. A brave, courageous, and determined people who’ve never surrendered their hope for tomorrow. I consider myself fortunate to be surrounded by the strength of their character. I’m also thankful because I get to welcome them, hold their kids, and share meals, celebrations, and sadness with them. I’m part of their “receiving family” – not bound by blood or history, but instantly connected. Like the Red and Assiniboine rivers, from where they merge, they move forward together.

The transitional nature of IRCOM’s housing has meant that thousands of new Canadians have started over with us. It’s an honour to be a part of that new beginning – the joy of finding safety, hope, and second chances. It’s also an honour to be trusted to share in the grief and disillusionment that often follow the happy arrival.

When life in Canada proves to be so much harder than imagined- learning a new language, finding employment, making friends – many ache for what was, no matter the hardships they left behind. It may take months or years, but the moment arrives when even the strongest begin to bend under the weight of sorrow. They can’t escape the sadness that comes from moving towards an unimaginable future. The struggles of integration are enormous, but not insurmountable, if they can envision a picture of what awaits them. But when they can’t see that image, when the fog is so thick it obscures the horizon, uncertainty shakes their faith. Uncertainty about the future coupled with the realization that there’s no way back can lead to despair. The life they once knew is gone. They exist in a limbo where the past is the only place known to have been real. I understand this limbo and the immense desire to hold on to bygone days. I also understand how impossible it is to let go of what we knew and loved; I’ve lived with my heart in two places for 30 years. Half of my spirit iswith my family here, and half lingers with family who are on the other side of the world. Now, aside from missing them, I’m faced with the possibility that, not because of persecution and conflict this time, but because of COVID, those I left behind may not be there when I return. We may never see each other again.   

I am grieving. I imagine I am not alone in anguish. I think we are grieving as a community, a country, and a world. The life we knew, whether we loved it or not, is forever gone. It was familiar and, in so many ways, predictable. We understood where we fit, what purpose we served. We could plan for the future. Now the future feels so unknown it is nearly impossible to envision the work of art it may have been.  We know that we will not be able to return to the way things were. Painted onto the canvas of each of our lives will be a place of chaos, where colours that might otherwise clash, meet each other. Life before and life after the pandemic.  For many of us, as well as for organizations like IRCOM, the new world will require that we re-imagine who we are, perhaps not entirely, but in significant ways. The landscape beneath our feet will have so dramatically shifted, we won’t be able to leave it to chance that we’re part of the future; we’ll have to make sure we’re there by design.

The borders will likely not reopen to refugees for months, if not longer. Every resettlement country will focus its energies on rebuilding its own society, and re-engaging that society in a new economy. Until every employable Canadian is meaningfully employed, it is unlikely that political leadership will welcome strangers from away. What does this mean for IRCOM? I have found myself lost in that question, and it was this very question which hit me like a tidal wave in the parking lot, as I looked up at the tower.

The thought brought me to tears. I stood, momentarily paralyzed, crying, and overcome by profound sadness. IRCOM is so much more than where I work. For me, it is the sum of courage, hope, life, and renewal. IRCOM is a place where dreams come true. I’ve seen it happen so many times. It’s also where many find healing, myself included. I lost my mother seven years after arriving in Canada. Until I came to IRCOM I wasn’t sure I’d ever be near her again. Then, I stepped into a classroom with a dozen women from all over the world. Each one was eager to learn English, see their kids succeed, find work, and make friends. I recognized the fear in their eyes, and the loneliness, but also the strength. I found my mother in every one of them.

At IRCOM, over and over, I’ve been able to return to my arrival story. Except now I’m not a helpless child watching a struggling parent trying to envision her own future. Now, I can stand beside our families and we can take those first steps together. Now neither of us needs to feel alone. It is a beautiful thing to be tasked with one purpose, and one purpose only; to love. I’m here to love them.

I wiped my eyes and did what came to mind. I climbed the tower. Step by step, I ascended the stairs. With floor after floor behind me, I grew more tired, and more determined.  At the top I entered a pitch black mechanic room and, with my hands stretched out ahead of me, slid my feet along the floor to the sliver of light on the other side. As the door opened, light rushed inside and I was blinded by the expanse of the sky.

Instantly, my perspective changed. There was no longer a fortress, no darkness obscuring my vision; I was standing on the skyline of our community. And I wasn’t alone, because none of us are, if we can only see beyond the fear that towers before us. 

From the top of IRCOM I saw the horizon, the North End where I first lived after arriving in Canada. I saw many of the incredible organizations supportingour community – Rossbrook House down the street, SEED Winnipeg across the bridge. I saw Health Sciences Centre and thought about the people there, fighting to save lives. In the distance, I saw the high rises encircling Portage and Main, an intersection every Winnipegger has likely crossed. I lifted my hand and traced the clouds, like brush strokes suspended above our community; partners, friends, donors, collaborators, allies, and champions. I imagined every building from Assiniboine Credit Union at 200 Main Street to United Way of Winnipeg at 580. I’ve walked these streets my entire life and I will walk them again. I saw thousands of homes – thousands of lives – lives that need us now and will need us in the future, whatever that future holds.

Hope rushed in. The IRCOM of 29 years, the place I know and love may not be what’s it’s been, but it will endure. As long as it stands, it will be a home to our newest neighbours. And our vision of “A Community of Belonging” will be possible, now and then, more than ever, because we can build a country where everyone belongs. Tomorrow demands it.

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