Over the past decade I’ve sat with hundreds of newcomers at the end of their three year tenancy at IRCOM House. Every family is invited for an exit interview with the Executive Director, and nearly everyone jumps at the opportunity. Many express profound gratitude to the staff and volunteers for making their first three years of life in Canada so wonderful. They speak hopefully of the future, and say they feel equipped to leave our threshold and immerse themselves in the community. It’s always a moving conversation. At the best of times my heart lives just beneath the surface, but in the presence of our tenants, people who’ve shown such courage, who’ve held onto the dream of a life renewed, I dissolve into tears every time. Many come to the interview with their children, some having been born at IRCOM, others having travelled from afar, but knowing IRCOM as their first, safe home. The little ones who know me sit on my lap and stare into my eyes, smiling ear to ear. They always have so much to say about life at IRCOM, invaluable feedback: which snacks they enjoyed in the After School Program, that the hallways are too narrow to ride their bikes (bikes are not allowed in the hallways 🙂 ), and that they don’t want to leave because all of their friends are here.
I ask the exiting tenants what we could do better in the future, for families yet to arrive, or what concerns remain that we might be able to address together before they leave. I ask them if they feel ready, and if we helped them increase their confidence. I ask them how they feel about the support they received from IRCOM, and what has brought them the greatest happiness. I take detailed notes and synthesize the findings to share with the whole team.
Whenever I can, I write down direct quotes so I can return to them later on, as examples of our impact. Until now, I rarely went back to the interview notes, but being forced to be away from our families because of COVID-19 and physical distancing, I’m looking at their words so differently. I took for granted what we meant to one another; what it meant to all of us that we could move in and out of one another’s lives so effortlessly.
What strikes me the most right now, given the chasm between us, is what our presence actually meant to one another. It isn’t just the programming, the safe housing, the language supports, the Canadian life skills training, or the financial literacy workshops. It isn’t just all of that which makes IRCOM what it is. It is our presence in each other’s lives. You see, many of our families have told me that war is not the most terrible thing to happen to a person. They’ve said that persecution or prison is not the depth of human suffering. No amount of bombs or gunfire, no loss of home or country, not even the loss of a loved one compares to one thing – believing you’ve been forgotten.
Believing no one out there thinks of you, that no one remembers you, that no one longs for your return isn’t like existing and then perishing, it’s like being erased from existence altogether. I’ve heard this many times, as they held my hands, as we wept together, as I promised never to forget them. But until now, I didn’t realize what it meant to truly be present; present to reassure each other, present to laugh together, present to cry, and present to be afraid – afraid but not alone.
And so I think of their words now, as many of us scramble to organize our own lives, defer our mortgage payments, stock up on toilet paper, or apply for EI. I think of their words because I too am deeply focused on my family, and coming to realize how easy it can be to lose sight of those around us. I see how easy it is to forget to look up and remember our neighbours, colleagues, close and distant friends; many who are at the mercy of this chaos and who may not have the privileges we have.
Yes, it is a privilege to defer a mortgage payment, because it means you have a home that is yours.
Yes, it is a privilege to pre-purchase dozens of rolls of toilet paper, because it means you have the money to buy it and the space to keep it in.
Yes, it is a privilege to apply for Employment Insurance, because it means you were employed in the first place, and you’re assured continued support over the coming months.
I promised our families I would not forget them. I did not make this promise lightly, and I did not make it empty-handed. I am a monthly donor to IRCOM, yes, the organization I have the great honour of leading. I am a staff member, I am a volunteer (those late night, off the record hours I spend trying to make some magic happen), and I am a donor. I am so proud to be a donor to IRCOM, I am so honoured to remember the stories I’ve been told and do my small part to make dreams come true. I am present. I am a witness to their lives, and in the midst of COVID-19, I am committed to not forgetting about the people who desire to be remembered.