I was standing in line inside a local gas station in Prince Albert waiting to pay for my fuel when I was tapped on the shoulder by a man in his mid-thirties. His English was almost non-existent so he didn’t even try to speak, he just used hand gestures. In a very Canadian way, others in line joined in to help me guess what he wanted. It was a comical game of charades but we finally figured out that he wanted us to call a taxi.
Outside, as I jumped back in my car I saw him with his little family huddled in a bus shelter. He had a wife and 5 young children. They were Syrian refugees. I tried to offer them a ride but the man didn’t want to disappoint the cab driver who would arrive at any moment.
Between November 2015 and February 2016 Canada resettled 25,000 government-supported and privately sponsored refugees. The Mennonite Central Committee is an organization that has, among other things, helped unite desperate families with their relatives. Both Mennonites and Hutterites were part of the Protestant Reformation and are part of the Anabaptist community. Although we have different cultures, ways of life and languages, Hutterites and Mennonites are considered spiritual cousins. Both cultures are pacifists and strive for peace, but Mennonites do it in a much broader context.
It was through the Mennonite Central Committee that Green Acres Hutterite Colony in Manitoba came to sponsor a young Syrian refugee family. “It is a great honor,” Elaine Hofer tells me over the phone. The family arrived in February; a young couple with 2 small children. The wife was pregnant with their 3rd child which was born last month. The family spoke only Arabic. Its been “a journey of vulnerability and love,” Elaine tells me.
It was through the Mennonite Central Committee Canada that my great uncle and aunt (Opa and Oma) and their family were the first family ever taken in by a Hutterite colony, as refugees. They endured unimaginable hardships during the Russian Revolution before they fled from Russia to Poland and then to Germany. Four of their 8 children including their only daughter starved to death.
My grandfather Christian Dornn had previously come to Canada. They found his whereabouts through the Mennonite Central Committee and became determined to join him. Opa and Oma pleaded to have their surviving son, Alex Georg and his family join them in Canada. My uncle Jake (Vetter) Maendel who was the minister at New Rosedale Colony agreed to my father’s request to sponsor them.
My parents were newly married when they met the family at the train station in Winnipeg. The description of my parents meeting them is part of family folklore. “Your father was absolutely delighted to see us, his face bright and open with a great smile, but your mother was so shy she walked next to him wearing a polka dotted headscarf, her head down,” Oma would tell me. I remember how shy my mom was in mainstream society but when she was on home ground her kindness and devilish sense of humour endeared her to everyone.
At first, the family found their new surroundings at New Rosedale Colony so peculiar that when my mother returned with food from the community kitchen the entire family was sitting at her little table crying. But they proved to be charming and dutiful and the entire colony became very fond of them.
The teenage boys, Willie and Edwin became so attached to my father that they insisted on sleeping at the foot of his bed when he had his afternoon nap. They followed him everywhere. Father in turn treated them like his own sons and adored them.
When the Georg’s sponsorship was up a year later the colony hoped they’d stay but the family moved to Edmonton where they began life in mainstream society. To our great benefit, they left Oma and Opa on the colony. They lived next door to our family and became a vital part of our lives.
My family has been a great beneficiary of sponsorship and I am grateful that the Canadian way is a model for the rest of the world.
Mary-Ann Kirkby is a Hutterite author and professional speaker. Signed copies of her books are available at the Rusty Owl Restaurant in P. A. and at www.polkadotpress.ca. Contact Mary-Ann at email@example.com
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