[In Canada] there was promise of work, the ability to earn not just enough money to live, but to buy a home, a car, and to take vacations maybe. There was democracy, freedom of the press, a world class healthcare system, free primary education; the list went on and on. It seemed Canada had so much to offer and asked so little in return.Dorota Blumczyńska
As a newcomer, I have a complicated relationship with Canada
July 1, 2020
As a newcomer, albeit not a recent one, I have a complicated relationship with Canada. On the one hand, I owe this country my freedom and all that has been made possible because my family was welcomed here. We were resettled under the “political prisoners and oppressed persons class”, as refugees, thirty years ago. Canada was only one of two nations globally that was willing to accept us.
On the other hand, I am now aware that from the moment I arrived, I was a settler, continuing the colonial narrative. My family found safety in Canada, permanence, belonging, many rights and responsibilities, all that were further assured to us when we took the oath of citizenship. Citizenship in a country that I have learned, only as an adult, because it was never taught in the public school system, oppressed the Peoples of these lands and aimed to legislate them out of existence. Our family fled oppression, a foreign government that sought to control the natural resources of our country and to subjugate us. Unknowingly, upon landing in Canada, we became the oppressor.
This was hard to understand and even harder to accept. My Canada, the one I cherish and identify with, the one whose values I have internalized, the one I believe offers the world a living example of multiculturalism, diversity, and inclusion had a different history and a different present than I was lead to believe. It became harder to love this place in quite the same way, having lost my youthful idealism, and seeing what I imagined, replaced by a painful truth.
Last Saturday, as I attended a beautiful Multiculturalism Day celebration at Assiniboine Park organized by the Ethnocultural Council of Manitoba – Stronger Together, a small event respecting physical distancing and public health orders, I listened intently as Loretta Ross, Treaty Commissioner, gave her welcoming remarks. She spoke of the First Nations that have called this place home for millennia, and noted that each of them has their own distinct culture, language, traditions, and customs, although very much a “shared sense of humour.” She greeted the man seated to her right, from the Dakota Nation, and motioned to her left, her husband, from the Cree Nation, and shared that she herself is Anishinaabe. She explained that amongst them there was diversity, which should be both celebrated and recognized, not solely be reciting land acknowledgments, but by ensuring there is a seat at the table and an Indigenous voice in every policy and systems conversation.
Ms. Ross said the First Nations entered into Treaties with the Crown so that those who came here could live freely, find refuge, a new home, and a place in which they could realize their dreams. It felt like she was speaking directly to me, although I imagine her words rung true with many of those gathered, hailing from well over twenty countries. I paused and thought, how have the settlers, I included, lived up to the promises of the Treaties?
At the refugee reception centre that processed our resettlement paperwork, Canada might have been described to my parents as the land of plenty. That was the impression they gave, trying to excite us for the next part of our long journey. We came before the age of the internet; we couldn’t Google the place to see what it would look like. At best, there might have been a pamphlet or a brief pre-departure orientation. We knew it would be cold, but that was about it.
There was the promise of work, the ability to earn not just enough money to survive, but so much that in time, one could buy a home, a car, and maybe take a vacation. There was democracy, freedom of the press, a world class healthcare system, free primary education; the list went on and on. It seemed Canada had so much to offer and asked so little in return.
It was only after arrival that the dream bubble burst. Without English or their education recognized, my parents were barely employable. The work they managed to get only paid minimum wage. Then and now, minimum wage wasn’t enough for a life of dignity, never mind paying for adequate housing for a family of seven and enough food to feed them all. With so many seasons, we couldn’t afford proper clothing: rain gear for wet springs, light clothes for blistering summers, lined wind-breakers for gusty autumns, and insulated, layered snowsuits for frigid, unforgiving winters. All that times seven people.
Two full time wages couldn’t make ends meet. So once my eldest sister had a social insurance number issued, my parents got more work under her name. We were hired by a cleaning company subcontracted to various locations. I was fortunate because, as one of the “unofficial” employees, seeing that I was about ten years old at the time, we got a job at a museum. Several evenings a week, starting after bedtime and working for hours into the night, we cleaned it top to bottom. I rushed through the offices emptying out garbage bins and dusting surfaces so I could get to “cleaning” the fun parts. With rag in hand, I would slip down, feet first on my belly, pulling the moist cloth behind me along the big tree slide. Then I’d sit in the train, at every booth, wiping the tables and washing the windows. I thought it was every kid’s dream to have free access to the museum and no one to stand in line behind.
My early experiences of Canada were like that; some absolutely wonderful, but others, very, very hard. We were greeted here by poverty, a harsh climate, a language we couldn’t understand, and a truth that was not as advertised. The families who lived beside us on Selkirk Avenue and then on Manitoba Avenue, could trace their lineage countless generations. They had birthed and buried on this land for thousands of years. Yet they didn’t appear to be living the “Canadian dream”. We came empty handed. I think my parents were expecting to build from nothing, but why was there such hardship being endured by the families who had been here so long, long before anyone else arrived?
I thought of this as Ms. Ross spoke. Not as much about the false stories of Canada, but what I came to understand as I got older, that I feel complicit in. The one sided way the Treaties have been honoured, when and if they are honoured at all.
It’s Canada Day and I am here, grateful; a citizen, participating in our democracy, educated, fortunate to own a home, having had the privilege of several vacations, and in so many ways, living the dream. All this, within thirty years of arrival. But as I think back, although we were neighbours, my life and that of my Indigenous friends and classmates were not afforded the same opportunities, not in the least. It’s kind of like the museum; my family had free access to Canada and no one to stand in line behind. That was and is my privilege.
I know a bit better now, meaning; with every day that passes I am learning a more truthful history of Canada. It has and always will hold a special place in my heart and I think in the hearts of thousands of migrants. But I want to love this land with my eyes open, and to do that, learning is just the beginning. I am also trying to do my part to rebuild the relationships that were broken when the Treaties were broken. I am seeking to understand my role as a Treaty person.
To me, being Canadian means being situated alongside the Nations of this land, thankful that they believed those who came from away should find home, safety, and belonging here. It means expressing my gratitude by allying with Indigenous Peoples as they seek to reclaim their lands, preserve their languages, have sovereign governance, full economic participation, and the Nations to nation relationship they were promised.
Happy Canada Day, you are my home.
Race matters, race has always mattered, and race will continue to matter. Until the whole of society wakes up, stands up, fights back, and until, especially until, white people learn to step back, race will shackle people, place glass ceilings above their heads, paint targets on their backs. Yes, white people must step back, step aside, fight with, stand with, and suffer with people of colour. Endure together, hand in hand, the brutality that comes when people rise to liberate themselves from oppression. Stop sympathizing and start every day relinquishing space and power.Dorota Blumczyńska
Even if you start feeling uncomfortable, please don’t stop reading. We are long overdue for this conversation.
June 1, 2020
I’ve been asked many times over the years why a newcomer serving organization is led by a white woman. Yes, I’ve been asked this question by IRCOM staff, tenants, community members, partner organizations, and many others. I’ve filled out surveys about leadership and race and felt uneasy about my role. I felt uneasy when directly asked; I felt uneasy many times looking in the mirror.
It is such an important question. Yes, why would one of the province’s most dynamic immigrant and refugee serving organizations, whose staff team and program participants are by far a majority of people of colour, have a white person in its most influential role? A person who does not have and will never have the lived experience of racism. Is it important that the leadership of a community based organization like IRCOM have this lived experience?
Yes, yes it is important. It always has been, but it is especially today and into the future.
And so there is no good answer, or rather, no answer that is good enough. It is a truth I struggle with, not just when I am asked directly, but when I think critically about the world I want to live in, the world I want for my and our children.
When I was interviewed for the Executive Director role ten years ago, I was asked a question. I don’t recall exactly how it was worded, but I know how I answered it.
“The Executive Director of IRCOM must be an immigrant or a refugee.”
I did not name race.
Ten years ago I did not have the critical analysis and understanding of the world I have today. It has been and continues to be a learning journey; at times painful, requiring deep self-reflection, vulnerability, humility.
I can almost hear some of the responses or counter arguments to what I am asserting… “but race isn’t the only thing that matters”, “IRCOM has people of colour in senior management and management positions, and on its Board of Directors”, “it’ll happen with time, stronger representation”, “but you are a newcomer, you came as a refugee, you understand what the community has experienced”…
I respectfully disagree. Although some of those points are true, accurate, and very important, they are not enough. Fundamentally, within structural and systemic racism, they are not enough.
Race matters, race has always mattered, and race will continue to matter. Until the whole of society wakes up, stands up, fights back, and until, especially until, white people learn to step back, race will shackle people, place glass ceilings above their heads, paint targets on their backs.
Yes, white people must step back, step aside, fight with, stand with, and suffer with people of colour. Endure together, hand in hand, the brutality that comes when people rise to liberate themselves from oppression. Stop sympathizing and start every day relinquishing space and power.
Standing with starts by acknowledging that racism doesn’t only happen “down south“. That it’s in another place. IRCOM’s buildings have been tagged with the “n” word; hateful graffiti telling our community members to “go home”; women have had their hijabs violently pulled off their heads. Racism is real in Canada, it is real in Winnipeg. Anti-Indigenous racism, anti-Asian racism, anti-Black racism, anti-Muslim racism. Unless we name it and confront it, nothing will change.
Silence only serves the oppressor; it betrays the oppressed. Our racialized brothers and sisters don’t need white people to rescue them; every person has the agency within themselves to fight for their own freedom. White people need to get out of the way. White people need to check their own privilege. White people need to actively and consciously dismantle the systems that uphold their power. White people need to stop being silent.
I once heard someone say that even a room of white men has diversity. Diversity of lived experiences, different backgrounds, different journey’s through life. I get that, for sure, I would never imply that the lived experience of one person is the lived experience of another, no matter how similar they appear. But just as I can never understand what it feels like to be a man, I can never understand what it feels like to be racialized.
I am acutely aware of my white privilege. Even as I walk and bike between IRCOM’s two locations, in a socially and economically diverse community that has experienced so much racial and colonial violence, I don’t fear for my safety. The “white” part of me isn’t afraid.
The “woman” part of me, however, is often nervous and braced for anything. I have had the experience of sexual assault and domestic violence. I know what hate, anger, resentment, and frustration feel like at the hands of people who believed I was beneath them. And I have felt very uncomfortable when men “flirt”, make benign comments, because I’m unsure what to expect next. In those moments, I’ve felt my heart rate increase, I’ve walked away faster, clenched my keys in my hands, with one protruding between my fingers like a weapon, averted my eyes, hidden them behind my sunglasses.
Gender-based violence is known to me, but oppression of one kind cannot be compared to oppression of another kind. I have not and will never experience racism. I have experienced plenty of white privilege – when living in South East Asia my fair skin was highlighted as beautiful and meant I had an easier time travelling, getting into restaurants, doing anything and everything. When visiting India, I was complimented for how lovely my light skin was and reminded by family friends and even strangers to be careful not to expose it to the sun because it would get “brown”.
I have said it many times, when sharing the IRCOM story; my “foreignness” is invisible. Other than my name, which piques curiosity in some people and begs the question, “where are you from”, nothing else tells you I am not born in this country or how I came to be here. I have no accent, I was educated in Canada, I live in the “burbs”, and when I drive to work, I drive an SUV. I enjoy so much privilege, it is easy to sit in it; you’d think I have no reason to disrupt my own comfort.
But I do. First, the very fact that I feel safe enough to write this letter is a product of privilege. I am not afraid of being judged, I am not afraid of losing my job, I am not afraid of losing the respect of my colleagues. I am not afraid of facing consequences for speaking so openly about racism, or being called out for “hysteria”, “aggression”, “exaggeration”…. The many things people of colour are accused of when they call out racism.
Next, what has changed in me over time and continues to force me back into an uncomfortable space is that the people I love the most in the world live it in every day. I am watching how my daughters grow up in our community, and how differently their father and I see our roles as parents.
I have always believed that we need to teach them to stand up and fight for themselves. He was, for a long time, of the opinion that if we raise them to be polite, kind to others, to do well in school, they would have a good life and be happy. I would yell out in absolute frustration… “Politeness will not stop them from being hurt, it will not give them the job they are more than qualified for, it will not protect them from the violence they have an exponentially higher likelihood of experiencing because they are brown.” He would argue back, the world has changed, it’s not like that, it’s 2020, and they can do anything they want. Stalemate.
We’ve had many, many arguments about racism, feminism, discrimination, poverty, systemic oppression; the list goes on and on. Yes, they were arguments; we live in and experience a different world. That is until about a month ago when he went to get some groceries and came back empty handed.
“Where are the things you went to get?” I asked, confused.
“I had to leave the store.” He said this solemnly.
“Why, why did you have to leave, what happened?”
“Nothing, nothing happened, it was just….” His voice drifted off and he sat down on the couch slumping.
“I don’t understand.”
“I didn’t feel comfortable. I just didn’t feel safe.”
“Why, because of the virus, were you wearing your mask?” I wasn’t prepared for what was coming because he had never, in over eleven years, said anything like what he was about to say.
“I could feel it. I could feel the eyes on me, I could feel people watching me, I just couldn’t stay there.” His face was buried in his hands.
“What happened, did someone say something, did they do something?”
“No, no one said anything, no one did anything, I could just feel it, it was racism, I’ve never felt so much on the outside.”
I didn’t know what to say. I was angry, I wanted to drive there and scream at people, but scream at whom, and is it really helpful for a white woman to come into a grocery store and start screaming about racism. He pulled himself together, turned to me and said,
“Teach them to fight. The girls, teach them to speak up, you can show them how to defend themselves. I know what you mean now, I get it. They have to be ready.”
We stopped talking. Silence, he just sat there. I resumed making dinner, changing the menu because he didn’t bring the things I needed. Racism changed our meal. Racism changed the course of his day. Racism “othered” the tall, confident, capable man I know. Racism took up space in our lives and demanded I prepare my children for it. How was I, a white mother, going to teach my daughters how to live as strong women of colour?
Race isn’t a taboo subject in our home. My son from a previous relationship is white, or as the girls call his and my skin tone “peach.” The girls are visibly different tones of brown; the older of the two, enthusiastically describes everyone in the family as “peach, peach brown, brown, and black brown.” She has a sense of herself I have always respected.
When she came back from her kindergarten class a few years ago she showed us her “All about me” book. In response to the “What I like the most about me” question, the teacher wrote down the answer she was given. “The colour of my skin.” I saw this and smiled, my partner paused. He wanted to go speak with the teacher in case it made her feel uncomfortable or maybe she had questions. I asked why that was necessary. There was nothing wrong about our child saying she likes the colour of her skin, and who cares if the teacher felt uncomfortable, we should commend our child for proudly owning this part of herself. There was no reason not to love the colour of her skin. I didn’t want to make it a “thing”. That was the mother in me, but was it the best response for her? I told her I was proud of her but I wondered, did she learn to love herself that day, or did she learn politeness? I don’t know.
I’ve pieced together these stories because the events of the last few days in Canada and in the US, have made me wonder how parents, teachers, community members, all of society faces racism. I am afraid for our families, and I am afraid for my children. But I know that by inciting fear, racism holds power.
Looking at my children, kissing their sweet faces, I’ve told them as I often do, that they can be anything they want to be. But then it occurred to me, am I telling them the truth? Can they be anything they want to be? In the world as it is today, I don’t see evidence of this possibility. I need to see more racialized people as our Mayors, MLAs, MPs, Chiefs of Police, Executive Directors, CEOs. I need to see this now.
I also thought about the privilege I have to tap out of the racism conversation at any time. It is not my lived experience, and no amount of empathy, sympathy, ally-ship will internalize for me, a white person, the true impacts of racism. But I don’t to tap out and I won’t; it is the world those I love live in, so it is the world I need to enter to be with them. So I thought long and hard, how can I continue to be IRCOM’s Executive Director without the lived experience of racism?
I don’t have an answer, not today at least, but I have an absolute, unapologetic, conviction about where I stand.
I will not serve the oppressor. I will not betray the oppressed. I am not here to rescue our racialized brothers and sisters. I am here to recognize and support their agency and their power to fight for their own freedom. I will not get in the way. I will be conscious of my own privilege, and commit myself to actively and deliberately dismantling the systems that uphold structural and systemic racism.
I will not be silent.
I wish I could describe what it was about her words that struck me so profoundly. Maybe it was the way in which she spoke, from the core of her being, because she knew who she is meant to be, what gifts she brings to the world, how she will change the future.Dorota Blumczyńska
A single vision of the future
May 26, 2020
“You know I’m a doctor?” she said to me.
“A PhD?” I asked. Her statement was quite unassuming, couched in between stories of life in Kuwait, studying in Egypt, and most recently moving to Canada.
“No, a medical doctor, a general practitioner.”
I was simultaneously proud and disheartened. My pride came from hearing what this incredible young woman had already accomplished, my sadness came from knowing how much harder the journey must be for her, because of how Canada values, or rather devalues, the skills of newcomers.
In pursuit of a dream many newcomers abandon, Nouran holds onto this vision of herself: a surgeon in Canada. The obstacles are so many. Trained in Egypt, her education and credentials are not recognized here. She has years of studying still ahead, exams, and medical residency – all in all – maybe a decade, before it could be possible. Never mind the costs and what must feel like a life delayed. And yet, her eyes shine as she describes her future with the greatest clarity, absolute certainty, an enviable conviction. I could see as clear as day, a doctor in surgical scrubs, scalpel in hand, sitting there, describing the exhaustion and exhilaration of her long day.
It was mesmerizing. Nouran left me in awe of her, of the spirit it takes to do what is necessary to realize one’s own calling. She was so matter of fact about it, unapologetic; it wasn’t a question of if, it was when. And even that, she had mapped out, to every detail: this many years of study, this many exams, this many applications, this much time in residency, this much time training in a speciality. And as she told me about her days here, living alone in Winnipeg, I realized she was advancing towards this dream an inch at a time. Her work was for sustenance, her days spent so she could have shelter, food, and the basic necessities. Limited companionship, a couple of friends she rarely spent time with (even before COVID), and a call a day with her mother back home, to check on her wellbeing. And then just studying. Opening the books and studying. How, I asked repeatedly, how do you know, how do you see it so clearly?
It’s taken me much longer than I expected to begin to understand her steadfastness. I’ve been unable to put my thoughts together for weeks, in large part because I hadn’t seen this fire in anyone until now. When I write, it is in the ‘stream of consciousness’ style, as though I was speaking. I put to paper whatever thoughts flow from my mind. I do not filter or edit them. But my recent conversations with Nouran stunned me into silence, both in my mind and on paper. It takes a lot to shush me and my ever-racing thoughts.
I wish I could describe what it was about her words that struck me so profoundly. Maybe it was the way in which she spoke, from the core of her being, because she knew who she is meant to be, what gifts she brings to the world, how she will change the future. Her words echoed in my mind for days, and I kept returning to one question, what drives her?
Although I haven’t seen the resumes of IRCOM’s entire staff team, not even half really, I know from conversations that many of my colleagues have education and training that far surpasses my own. Over the years, we’ve employed several doctors, of medicine and philosophy, and many others who have held master’s degrees and years of work history. I’ve always been and continue to be in the company of brilliant minds; so much of our success is owed to each of them.
But I understand too well that it is a double-edged sword (their foreign education and experience). Within organizations like IRCOM, who recognize it, it’s a competitive advantage- but rarely if ever do we hire for positions related to their specialized training. We value the credentials as Canadian equivalent and know that post-secondary education helps to strengthen many critical skills. We, the IRCOM community, benefit from their talents; yet the whole of society loses out when those talents aren’t fully utilized.
Nouran explained her journey, of leaving behind her family who have been living in Kuwait for years. In the last few months, as COVID was discovered there, minority groups were being targeted and blamed. Her family, living across the world, are feeling outside of the community they’ve called home for decades. Their dreams are being lost, taken away. As ethnic Egyptians living in Kuwait, they have some but not all rights, and with the onset of the pandemic and panic, people who were once neighbours and friends are turning on each other. Not all- some are rallying together and coming to each other’s defence, calling for equitable access to health supports. Nouran’s pain was visible; they felt they were a part of that community. Now, they have discovered as that community faces adversity, just how precarious their belonging truly was.
Nouran and I, without saying anything, knew how these particular experiences of minority groups in Kuwait stand in stark contrast to what we’ve seen here at home in Winnipeg. Although many working with newcomers believed it was impossible that the government would ever extend health services to everyone, regardless of their immigration status, it has happened. All who call our community home can now get screening, testing, and treatment for COVID. And no, I am not naïve enough to believe this is some altruistic change in philosophy; it is driven by public interest and public health. Nonetheless, it proves that truly universal healthcare is possible in Canada. That is the dream I think that Canada offers the world; I know it was the dream that my family believed in. That here, we can prove the impossible possible: within one lifetime, within one generation.
Weeks passed, I could not write my blog. I could not move on. What was I meant to learn from this moment?
Then, at the end of what felt like several long days, pondering, staring at the sky, I found my answer.
I rushed home after work, opened boxes of university books, and started flipping through pages of notes. Peter Jensen. Peter had said something, I wrote it down verbatim, I could see the page clearly in my memory, but couldn’t make out the words.
Peter was one of my instructors at Queen’s University last year as part of the Executive Education Program. A world class Olympic Coach, Peter told us that “athletes have no special physical advantages to any other person”. No inherent talent. Nothing unique they are born with. Peter said that what coaches appeal to within the athlete is “the individual’s autonomous power to transcend the limits of our genetics and environment.”
What Olympic athletes have and their coaches train them to hone in on is a “single vision of their future”. In every waking moment, athletes are asked to visualize themselves on the podium, to hear the crowd, smell the track, the turf, or chlorine evaporating from the pool, to pay attention to where the sun enters the arena, how their tracksuit feels on them as they take part in the opening ceremonies, how their shoes hit the ground with each step. Those images are real; they are made to come to life today, even though they will be “lived” in the future.
In this tiny mauve office chair, sitting, slightly hunched, Nouran the surgeon appeared. She beamed with promise. And as we prepare for a phased in re-opening, she sits at the front desk, answers the phone, and helps community members with their inquiries. I glance over and see her. But now, my eyes and my heart see the warrior that lives within and I am thankful to her. In this past month, she has been my teacher. I have felt my courage grow; my dreams come into sharp focus, my conviction emboldened, simply because I stood in the shadow of her heroic quest.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.