In my first grown-up, career job, at the tender age of 22 or 23, I had the privilege of facilitating refugee hearings for people seeking political asylum in Canada. I felt like the luckiest person alive, being able to hear stories of survival and perseverance, and to be a representative of the Canadian government. I’d only just returned from traveling in Europe where a maple leaf and/or blondeness opened up pretty much every door. I am also the granddaughter of immigrants. I felt that I was doing good work.
The events this week in Paris reminded me of a Middle Eastern family who were seeking asylum. During our initial conversations, in preparation for the hearing, I found the parents to be warm and delightful. Their homeland was embroiled in civil war. I could feel how painful it was for them to leave everything behind and throw themselves at the mercy of a nation not their own.
Part of my task required that I obtain an Arabic-speaking interpreter. When I informed the couple that I had an interpreter and we were good to go, the husband asked me for the person’s name. An odd request, I thought, but I told him. There was an awkward silence on the phone. “Please find someone else,” he said. “Your interpreter is an infidel, and he will not translate in a trustworthy manner.”
I had never heard the word “infidel” before. I thought he meant that the interpreter was agnostic, something one could hardly gather from hearing a name. I tried to assure him that all of our interpreters were unbiased and well qualified. After he explained, I said, in my rosy naivete, “But it’s all the same God.” In the end, I had to find someone else…a “fidel”.
I don’t recall whether the family’s claim was successful, and it doesn’t matter. What stayed with me, though, is how much distrust and worst case scenario thinking we drag around with us, even when the opportunity for something better stands right before our eyes. Their children would be about the age of the suspects in the Charlie Hebdo tragedy. Each of us grows where we’re planted. Some of us never get the twists out. I offer these flowers, focused and unfocused, in tribute to all who are suffering today.
© Elaine Stirling, 2015