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Alley behind IRCOM Isabel/ Dorota Blumczńska

What we are experiencing right now, as a community and as a society, as a world, is collective trauma. And as someone who lives in the midst of it- both my own and my community’s- I have some experience navigating this complicated landscape.

Dorota Blumczńska

How we emerge

May 1, 2020

Apology and a warning. If you are having a difficult time, this blog may not be the best choice of reading in this moment. I’m also struggling. Through writing I process my thoughts, my fears – but I understand that those thoughts may trigger something in others. And so if you are worried about the uncertainty of this entire situation, COVID et al, please don’t continue to read. When you are ready to step into a difficult conversation, this message will be waiting here for you.

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Written a few days ago…

Today we woke to a cloudy sky, rain- a blah kind of day. I imagine that some of us greeted the morning with optimism, hope, and a sense of purpose, while others felt the opposite. I met the grey sky with profound sadness in my heart. In part, it is because I had believed that by the end of April much of this would have passed. I was holding onto hope that May would bring about a return to a life more familiar. But what swept over me as I looked at this ominous horizon was the realization that today, tomorrow, the end of this week will not bring about what I so dearly desire- because what was, is forever gone. It’s not to say that we won’t be happy again, or reconnect, rebuild, and renew our lives. But like all things eventually come to an end, the life, the one before COVID, which was abruptly stolen out from under us, is gone. And we weren’t given a chance to properly say goodbye.

I couldn’t bike to work because of the rain, so I drove. As I often do, I began silently narrating a story. I always hope to share them (my stories) with someone at some point – today, I wasn’t sure with whom or how. Most days, I am entirely alone in my office, with the door closed. I listen for the doorbell only to communicate with visitors through the glass. Day by day, fewer arrive, so the hours alone pass.

Driving, as though by autopilot, my mind went about articulating the thoughts I wanted to release. Story telling is how, in many ways, I’ve been able to make sense of world. It’s how I’ve been able to work at IRCOM for over a dozen years without losing hope. I am often the listener, the keeper, the carrier. Stories others have trusted me with have become chapters, books, and collections that are safely stored in the library I’ve built inside myself. Because, mine, is a vessel of stories: a mind that has taken in horrors, loss, and sadness, if only for others to know they needn’t carry them alone. I’ve given those stories a home, but to protect myself, I’ve learned to close the door and walk away from it. I’ve not been soured, angered, or become disillusioned by what I’ve learned. Their stories have fueled my compassion, humbled me, and taught me to live – to live fully, beautifully, unapologetically. But it hasn’t been easy; I’ve also had to learn to disassociate from what I’ve heard. I’ve learned to narrate the story from the third person. She, he, they. I’ve learned that words take on images, and those images must be painted over often, with laughter and love. And I’ve learned to honour the stories, never hurry them along, never assume the ending – I’m thankful that all, thus far, have ended with forgiveness.  

Today’s story, in my mind, brought me to imagine the day to day lives of people within our community. I reflected on the truth that all of us are waking under this gloomy sky, yet none of us will experience today in the same way. Many of the families we serve at IRCOM have survived hardships, unimaginable atrocities. If you look closely, that kind of pain is rarely far below the surface. It is visible in their faces; so many stories untold. Those stories are those of trauma, something that takes up home inside, and as has been my experience, accompanies us always.

I carry trauma from innumerable moments throughout my life– migration, being, in many ways, the least of them. But I also find comfort in knowing that my trauma has been, and will likely remain, my most loyal, constant companion. Anyone who lives with profound pain knows that it is something that takes on a life of its own, something we grow to have a relationship with. We have a strange relationship, my trauma and I. We take turns leading my life. Sometimes my strength and courage come from it; it charts the course to a bolder, braver life. At other times, though, it holds me captive, chips away at my sense of certainty. It is always speaking to me. Today, it took up space at the breakfast table, over coffee, and asked that I pay attention to this moment, right now. Because what we are experiencing right now, as a community and as a society, as a world, is collective trauma. And as someone who lives in the midst of it- both my own and my community’s- I have some experience navigating this complicated landscape.

Although we are not in an active conflict zone- there are no bombs, gunfire, and combat in the street- there are some threads of commonality, one being, a life lived in chaos. Much like in times of war, during these times of COVID, there is loss of life– merciless and arbitrary. There is also displacement– spending our days outside of the rhythm we know– away from the places that formed part of our daily lives. There is uncertainty– no one really has an answer to when this will end, how many of us will fall ill, how many will die. There is grief, anger, frustration. Our fight or flight responses are activated– for a long time– longer than the response is meant to be active. We are being traumatized. And just to be clear, I am not comparing or making light of conflict – these two events are irreconcilable, but the human impacts, when we’re harmed, can be deep, lasting, and often invisible. Trauma is invisible.

Invisible yes, but trauma surfaces under the guise of fear, anxiety, despair–any and all emotions. In recent days I’ve seen something new in the faces of my children – an angst and separation anxiety unlike them. Once keen to explore the outdoors and roam freely, social butterflies excited to be with others, now they don’t want to leave the house out of fear that they might get sick. They are listening; they’ve been listening all along, to the radio, the adult conversations. They’ve come to understand that the world out there, people, including their friends, teachers, and neighbours could make them sick and that they could die. They ask nervously as I leave to go to work if I’ll have contact with anyone, if the doorknobs are being cleaned, if everyone wears masks. I bend down to look my youngest, at eye level. I hug her and her older sister, and promise I will come back just fine.

You might say I can’t promise that, but from where I stand, I can and I will keep my promise. Because I can’t shelter them from life, I can’t protect them from all illness, from pain, heartbreak, loneliness. But what I can do is teach them how to walk towards it, how to keep an open heart even as the world breaks it, how to love when love feels out of reach, how to keep dreaming when one by one some of their dreams don’t come true. I can teach them that being fine is more than being physically healthy, that it is as much about the spirit we bring into the world, the gifts we share with others, and the ways in which we shape life by our presence. That living is expressed more through quality of life than longevity. That living into one’s purpose means standing with and walking beside our community– taking every precaution and following public health orders– but not hiding away when others need us.

You see what matters today, tomorrow, at the end of this week, whenever this damn thing ends, is how we emerge. Some of us may be traumatized. Many of our children will have experienced something they have limited means to understand or the cognitive ability to make sense of. But they will also have witnessed our community fighting for one another. And hopefully, as we heal, as we name our trauma and express it through our stories, we will teach them that they too are listeners, keepers, and carriers of humanity’s tale. They needn’t be held captive– they can author books about how we, through acts of colossal kindness, won back a life that honours every journey.

*** About the picture – Facing east from IRCOM Isabel, these are MB Housing townhouses, where many families have lived for decades. I lived in a similar community as a child, Lord Selkirk Park in the North End, when we first arrived in Canada. Looking at these homes takes me back; they remind me how very complicated poverty is – so often misjudged, too often disregarded.  

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Gabe/ Dorota Blumczńska

It bothers me, you know, the discrimination, just seein’ people not be good to each other… Thought I was done with care-taking. Then, I saw the ad, it looked interesting. All these cultures- they come, they just want to be happy here.

Gabe – Live-in Building Supervisor, IRCOM

Be good to each other, we all just want to be happy

April 21, 2020

From the corner of my eye, I could see Gabe coming in and out of the office. He stopped by the key box and leaned against the desk. Most mornings, since many staff are working from home, there are few of us around. There was a restlessness about him, he was loitering. I was used to his comings and goings. He’d often poke his head in, say, “Mornin’”, and then get on with work. Maybe it was the eeriness of a quiet, almost lifeless IRCOM, maybe he was stressed about COVID, maybe something else, but he returned to the key box for the third time in less than 10 minutes, and lingered there. It caught my attention (his movements) and then the long pause. I pushed my chair away from the desk and scooted over to the doorway.

“How are you, Gabe?” I asked casually. As the live-in building supervisor, he mostly visited my office to get into the electrical room, which was only accessible from there. We had few real opportunities to talk, that is, about things other than the building or tenants.

At our largest, the IRCOM team was 86 strong. That’s before COVID, funding cuts, funding losses – that’s only a few months ago. And although I knew everyone by name and face, I didn’t always know their story. It’s hard to find the time, I mean, it was hard to find the time before now. There’s this pace to our work that keeps things moving quickly: meetings with tenants, workshops for community members, organizing classes, delivering services, intervening in crises. We’re in the ‘people’ work; it never quite ends. And on the best of days we have our hands full, without a pandemic, a city wide lockdown, and families terrified and under-resourced.  And because if I’m honest, we have- we had- a large, really strong team that trusted each other to do our parts. We didn’t often meddle in each other’s work unless it was necessary. I knew Gabe was a star performer, so, like many managers (a common challenge when supporting large teams), I didn’t invest enough in our relationship because I trusted he was getting on just fine without my help.  

“I’m fine. Was replacing this valve on one of the boilers, have some patching to do in one of the suites, I’ve almost got that one apartment ready to go”. His list of tasks, both done and waiting for him was long. He provided so much detail; I may have understood half. But he didn’t answer my question, I wasn’t sure if he heard me.

“No, really, how are you?” I exaggerated the “you” and waited patiently.

“You know, I really like it here.” His smile faded. His shoulders dropped, he pulled up a chair, and sat down.

“Tell me something,” I began, making it clear he didn’t need to answer if he didn’t want to. “Why IRCOM, I mean, why did you chose to work here?” I’ve asked that question of dozens of staff over the years, mostly curious what brought them to our organization- where we fit along their journey.

“I love kids. And these kids, you know, they just run up to me- for me to pick them up, to hug them. They don’t even know me.” His eyes welled up, voice cracking. He brought his hand to his cheek to catch a tear.

We were 15 feet apart, in two different rooms. I was sitting in the doorway of my office, and he was behind the main reception desk. Because of COVID, IRCOM’s offices are closed, so the main lights are off. The morning sun, though, streams in through my office windows and spills into the reception area. The phones are diverted to staff off-site, and only those who are approved to be on-site are here. Very few of us.

“You’re family to them, Gabe; they know you. You keep them safe, live here with them. Kids love, they just love.”

He leaned forward, rested his elbows on his knees, and hung his head. I didn’t say anything more; I could see he was hurting. I hadn’t meant to, and I’m not sure that I did, but my questions may have brought something to surface. He had much he wanted to say. And since I had asked a few days earlier if one day I could interview him for the IRCOM blog, and he had said sure, I realized that one day was today. Before he really got started, I asked if I could take notes. He nodded, and I grabbed a pad of paper and pen.  

Born in Wabowden, MB, in a cabin with the help of a midwife, Gabe lived much of his life in the north.  His childhood years were spent in Cross Lake, then Thompson, the Pas, Norway House, Calgary, and Winnipeg. Not in that particular order. They moved around a lot. He understood Cree, but didn’t speak it much. He was proud that he had gotten his treaty rights back; they were stolen from his mother by the Indian Act because she married a white man. He said, theirs wasn’t a happy marriage. She endured a lot, but she loved her kids and did right by them. He wove stories together, I scribed feverishly, interrupting a few times when I couldn’t quite follow who he was talking about or where we were. But otherwise, I just listened.

He stopped a few times to rub his hands together. They ached he said, from all the work. Decades of work, I’d soon learn. He has managed properties all over the place. More than managed; he’s built, fixed, and improved homes. He did everything: dry walling, plumbing, electrical, soldering. 

“It bothers me, you know, the discrimination, just seein’ people not be good to each other.” There wasn’t sadness in his voice, or pity. His words were warm, full of care, delivered with a fatherly love. He spoke from a place of knowing, but whatever he carried, it hadn’t hardened him. The IRCOM families were his family too. It sounded to me like he was beaming with pride, standing in their defence.

“Thought I was done with care-taking. Then, I saw the ad, it looked interesting. All these cultures, they come, they just want to be happy here.” Now I teared up. He had chosen us; he brought a lifetime of skills and experience, and a heart full of love to our community. And he made this community his own, all because he believed in something so basic. Something that it seems to me is, sometimes, for some people, hard to grasp.

Be good to each other, we all just want to be happy.

**I asked Gabe’s permission to write this story and share it. 🙂 Over 3 days, and many conversations, he told me so much more; the above was one moment. I have pages of notes, many stories from his nearly six decades on this earth. I told him, after all the story telling, that I couldn’t write a book, it’s just a blog. He smiled and said, “I know, I know, just thought I’d tell you.” I should add, he wanted to fix himself up for the picture- I said he looked great. He smirked and complained he was covered in dust. LOL.

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IRCOM Isabel/Dorota Blumczńska

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.

Dorota Blumczyńska – Executive Director, IRCOM

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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Maya/Dorota Blumczynska – April 2, 2020

We can’t shut out those most in need while saying that we are focused on saving human lives.

Dorota Blumczyńska – Executive Director, IRCOM

Not all actions are justified

April 7, 2020

As I work from home, my youngest, Maya, sneaks in quietly. We chit chat, she draws on my “think” board, and tries to steal my candy (yes, I have my own stash because with 3 kids I’d never get any). I go back to answering emails, then glance over at her drawing.

“That’s beautiful.” I say, seeing the word Mama written beside the character.

“You’re a princess.” She answers, going on to tell me an elaborate story about my many princess adventures. It becomes clear I do more than sit in a castle. I’m somewhat of a warrior. I fight dragons, rescue people, and I have several magical powers. Momentarily I get lost in her story, surprised how articulate a five-year-old can be, describing a world and events she’s made up entirely in her mind. My eyes then catch the words written above my princess rendition – CCR – Borders Open – Health Services for All – Settlement [Services for All]. It’s a couple days before Refugee Rights Day and as President of the Canadian Council for Refugees, Canada’s largest refugee rights advocacy group, I’ve been asked to address advocates during a national call. What do I say to them? How do I speak about rights in an environment where Canada abandons its international commitments and turns refugee claimants away, a decision which took effect March 21st? Many claimants have already been turned away without a guarantee that the US won’t send them back to face torture or death. This is unacceptable. https://www.canada.ca/en/immigration-refugees-citizenship/services/coronavirus-covid19/refugees.html

We’re living in a whole new world today, a world vastly different than the one that existed a month ago, let alone a week ago. In some cases, fear is driving out compassion; there’s a profound desire to control all the conditions in order to minimize the risks, and many people feel actions once unimaginable are now justified. While many of the changes we are making are significantly altering our lives (closing school, prohibiting gatherings, shutting down businesses etc.) for the sake of our health and the health of others, we are complying – something I am deeply thankful for and agree with.

But some actions are unjustified, no matter how afraid we feel. Closing the border to refugee claimants is one such action. It abandons the rule of law, and it is the rule of law that is keeping the world from spiralling into chaos. The rule of law restricts the arbitrary exercise of power by agreeing that power is less important than adhering to well-defined and established laws. People and nations agree that this code protects everyone: those with privilege, power, and resources, and those without. This assures safety and a chance of survival to everyone, not solely to the mightiest powers.

In the midst of our focus on the value of human life and taking courageous and difficult action to ensure the health and wellbeing of everyone, we cannot forget people escaping persecution. Our actions have far reaching impacts, some of them on the lives of people we have never actually even met in real life. Our shared hope is that the compassion that evokes heroism in many of us would mean taking actions that save the lives of refugee claimants not unlike the actions we are taking to save the lives of our neighbours, friends, and family.

Surviving this global pandemic isn’t more likely if we use power or privilege. It is possible if we chose to cooperate, share resources, look after and protect one another. It requires humility, kindness, compassion, and perhaps most importantly, the ability to listen- to truly listen to one another and to value what is being said. And practically, we know how to do this while keeping everyone healthy. It isn’t one or the other; we can and should do both. People’s lives literally depend on it, just as they do with the health of our population. We can’t shut out those most in need while saying that we are focused on saving human lives – there is no integrity in that.

April 4th is an important day for refugees seeking Canada’s protection because it commemorates the anniversary of the Singh decision. Essentially, the Supreme Court found that refugee claimants (those who enter Canada by any means necessary in search of our protection) have the right to an oral hearing. The highest court in our country said that refugee claimants are human beings and as human beings they’re entitled to life, liberty, and security of the person. Refugee claimants are protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, despite the fact that they may have no status in Canada. Their humanity assures them the opportunity to share their story and we are obligated to listen to them.

So you see, Refugee Rights Day isn’t just for or about refugees. It’s about humanity, which means it is a day that celebrates justice for all of us, because it celebrates our human right to share our story. The Supreme Court didn’t guarantee an outcome, a positive or negative decision of the refugee hearings; it guaranteed every refugee claimant would have a chance to speak their truth.

Bringing our story to life by sharing it verbally with others restores a bit of our dignity. Even if just momentarily, when we articulate what we’ve experienced, when we put into words our suffering, we place those words, the memories, and the stories in the hands of another person. For that moment, the weight is lifted, and we can breathe new life into our being.

At IRCOM, as of March 15th (according to our House demographics) there were 436 people with just as many stories living in our buildings. People whose stories contain unimaginable trials, but who have nonetheless believed in our shared humanity and spoken their truth. People who have chosen compassion over fear, hope over despair, and who’ve trusted strangers to save their lives.   

Maya told the story of a princess who wasn’t afraid, who fought dragons, rescued people, who lived with her arms wide open and her heart filled with love. That princess lives in all of us- a courageous spirit full of conviction. It’s a choice to be brave and to blindly trust one another. It is also a choice how we respond to COVID- to close our borders, our communities, our wallets, and our hearts or to work together, unite, protect each other, and listen to what is being said. Our borders must remain open to our brothers and sisters, because as Lilla Watson so beautifully said…

“If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

#DistantButTogether #StrongerTogether #RefugeesWelcome

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Daniel Crump/IRCOM – January 27, 2020.

In the midst of COVID-19, I am committed to not forgetting about the people who desire to be remembered.  

Dorota Blumczyńska – Executive Director, IRCOM

Not forgotten

March 30, 2020

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.  


IRCOM children

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