By Yungli Tseng
Translated by Wu Hsiao-ting
With a strong humanitarian tradition, Canada accepts 30,000 international refugees annually. Tzu Chi Canada has joined the effort to care for this group of people.
An 18-year-old boy opened the door and welcomed Lisa Liou (劉憶蓉) and two other Tzu Chi volunteers into his home. He told the visitors that he and his 13-year-old sister had just arrived in Canada. He said their father had passed away and their mother was still in Iraq. He had no idea when she would be able to join them in Canada. The boy also said that his sister missed their mom dearly and often cried thinking of her. Looking at the shy girl in front of her, Lisa thought of her own daughter. She had just left to study in Britain and often cried over the phone, saying, “I miss you, mom!”
Lisa said to the young girl, “Can I give you a hug in place of your mother?” Embracing the girl, she felt her small body quivering with sobs.
Canada, a country with a strong humanitarian tradition, has accepted 30,000 refugees annually over the years, and in 2021 it increased that number to 45,000. Of all the cities in the Greater Vancouver area, where the Tzu Chi Canada branch is located, Burnaby is where most newcomers are settled by the Canadian government. Byrne Creek Community School in Burnaby, for example, has among its enrollment more than a hundred students from refugee families. Tzu Chi has sponsored the school’s breakfast program for many years. In early 2015, the school’s settlement worker asked Lisa Liou, who volunteered at the school every Thursday to prepare breakfast for students, if Tzu Chi could provide help to five Iranian and Iraqi refugees who had just resettled in Canada. This opened a new chapter of refugee care for Tzu Chi volunteers in Burnaby.
Byrne Creek Community School organizes a hamper drive at the end of every calendar year, collecting daily necessities, food, and seasonal gifts for students from refugee or low-income families. Tzu Chi Burnaby became the school’s partner for this drive in 2016. In early December each year, volunteers purchase rice, flour, beans, and other food items for the school, enough to pack about 80 hampers. Then volunteers help deliver to 20 to 40 beneficiary families, based on a list provided by the school.
In 2017, Mambo Masinda, a settlement worker who had worked in the Burnaby School District for more than ten years, expressed hope that Tzu Chi could provide support for three African families fresh out of refugee camps. Lisa Liou and other volunteers visited the families to determine how Tzu Chi could help. They saw for themselves what it was like to “have nothing but the bare walls in one’s house,” a Chinese idiom used to describe people who are utterly destitute. The three families each had seven to ten members, packed into cramped quarters. Their beds were nothing but blankets on the floor. Luggage cases standing against walls served as wardrobes. In one of the families, the only chair they had was where the children in the family did their homework. One child told Lisa, “I wish I had a real desk to do my homework!”
Since then, in addition to their sponsorship of the annual hamper drive at Byrne Creek Community School, the volunteers in Burnaby have been working with Masinda to offer supermarket gift cards, winter clothes, and furniture at the end of every year for newly settled refugee families.
Tzu Chi volunteer Alice Chang (張曉菁) and her family visit a woman who has just arrived in Burnaby, Canada, from Eritrea, eastern Africa, to bring her items to help keep her warm. It was late autumn and the weather was wet and cold, but the refugee had only flimsy clothes to wear. Burnaby has received more refugees than any other city in the Greater Vancouver area. Tony Ng
What they want most—a job
The Canadian government provides support for new refugee families to help them get started. Such support includes a one-time household start-up allowance and monthly income support payments for eligible households who cannot pay for their own basic needs. The monthly income support can last up to one year after a refugee arrives in Canada. Whether or not they qualify for government aid, however, most newcomers are eager to find a job as soon as possible. It’s expensive to live in Canada.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit the world hard in 2020, volunteers prepared additional gifts and the most needed items—face masks—for newly settled refugee families. The pandemic couldn’t have arrived at a worse time for these new immigrants. It hit just as they were adapting to their new lives. Some lost their jobs as a result. Fortunately, most of the breadwinners of the 30 families that volunteers visited were able to keep their jobs. Even though the work they did was mostly unskilled labor, they were content.
One of the refugees that volunteers visited was a man from Afghanistan. He had worked as a physician in his home country. Though he had been in Canada for three years, he didn’t have the required license to practice medicine here. He ended up having to work as a security guard. His wife and five children had reunited with him in Canada just a few months before the volunteers’ visit. The wife was very warm and cheerful to the volunteers, and she repeatedly invited them to have tea in their home. But as soon as the subject of their new environment came up, she began to choke up. Due to the pandemic, the volunteers could only give her an air hug to comfort her.
In 2021, because of price spikes, volunteers decided to increase the value of the supermarket gift card for each refugee from 25 Canadian dollars (US$20) to 50. They also asked Masinda to record each adult’s clothes size and the age of every child on the list of refugee families he was providing to Tzu Chi. Volunteers would thus be able to collect the winter clothes for distribution based on the refugees’ actual needs. The gifts Tzu Chi gave out this year were especially bountiful, including blankets and scarves made from recycled PET bottles, courtesy of the Tzu Chi Canada branch. A group of younger volunteers also provided throw pillows they had made.
The 14 families that received gifts from Tzu Chi in 2021 were, like the year before, mostly from the Middle East and Africa. A man who had worked as a reporter in Afghanistan had just arrived in Canada three months earlier with his family of eight. He was still jobless. Despite the cold winter weather, he was wearing short sleeves when volunteers visited him.
Another family consisted of a mother and son from Afghanistan. They had been in Canada for less than three months. The mother said her family was large and that in order for all of them to leave Afghanistan as soon as possible, they had no choice but to go to different countries. She and her son had ended up in Canada, but others had gone to Europe. She had a daughter who was still in Afghanistan, for whom she was very worried.
The material goods Tzu Chi can provide are limited when compared with the needs of these refugee families. But volunteers believe that the warm feelings the gifts convey is what really matters. Just like Masinda said, when refugees first arrive in the country, it’s natural for them to feel isolated. At such times, nothing beats helping them feel love and care from the community in which they’ve settled. “Helping them feel that their future in the country is promising brings them a sense of hope,” said Masinda. Masinda himself had arrived in Canada as a refugee years ago from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. After obtaining a PhD degree in Canada, he began working as a settlement worker, actively helping people in the same situation he had once experienced.
Refugees who have fled war or turmoil in their countries are unlikely to bring much with them when they arrive in a new country—how much stuff could a few luggage cases contain? Volunteers who have cared for this group of people over the years have seen again and again what it is like to “have nothing but the bare walls in one’s house.” While conflicts in the Middle East and Africa continue, a new war has broken out in Ukraine, giving rise to a fresh wave of refugees. Is world peace ever possible?
However sturdy a building is, it is impossible for it to withstand the ravages of artillery. Compared with the physical structures destroyed in warfare, a heavier toll comes in the form of lost human lives and the emotional impact on those affected by conflict. Volunteers sincerely pray for an end to suffering from war. They also hope that their efforts to welcome refugees into their new country will help set them on a path of hope and help them better transition to their new lives.
Volunteers Yungli Tseng (曾永莉, from left), Margaret Huang (簡素珍), and Lisa Liou brought gift cards and seasonal gifts in 2018 to a single mother and her two children from war-torn Eritrea. The little boy in the family was attracted to a stuffed toy the volunteers had brought. Steve Wang