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Hospitality and the Refugee Experience

Community volunteer, Director of Bring Back Hope, and Chair of the Immigration Partnership’s Belong Steering Group, Iman Arab, contrasts the journey of an immigrant and a refugee as a journey of pull versus push. While an immigrant is pulled toward a new opportunity and future, applying for visas, preparing for a journey and setting up settlement needs in their new country, a refugee’s journey is one of push – being forced out, with no preparation or plan, running for their lives. It is challenging to put ourselves in the shoes of someone being pushed out, escaping war and conflict, persecution and fear. People are pushed out from home, security, family, livelihoods, and places of belonging – facing an unknown future in an unknown place. Imagine it, imagine yourself, fleeing with babies and a few bags, setting out toward the unknown.

The journey of a refugee is choosing survival and existence over attachments to place and things – a journey of letting go and hoping for safety, protection and freedom. This is the journey of many in our world today. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as someone who is, “…owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

Canada is a country with a long history of sponsoring, settling and offering hope and protection to people seeking refuge. By the end of February, the newly elected Liberal government had brought 25,000 refugees of the Syrian conflict to Canada. Waterloo Region has welcomed 1,112 people fleeing Syria including those who are Government Assisted and Privately Sponsored. This Region has come together with a settlement preparedness strategy and structure that encompasses community leaders, decision makers, government, non-profit organizations, business, faith and ethnocultural groups and community members to work to successfully welcome and support these newcomers and to ready our community and supports. Work is happening in areas such as housing, transportation, language support, health, community integration, advocacy and fundraising. This response is a work in progress and demonstrates the commitment and hospitality of people to make room and to welcome. (See WRwelcomesrefugees)

The Oxford dictionary defines hospitality as a noun, the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers.” Hospitality can also be described as friendliness, compassion, reception, warmth, accommodation, generosity, and neighbourliness. When we welcome and offer refuge and support to those who are refugees, hospitality becomes a verb – it is an action. So, what is the action of hospitality in the face of so much loss – losing home, identity, language and culture, health, and more? While hospitality is the resettlement aspects of securing a home, attending school, learning English, and accessing services, it is also the acts of friendship and relationship. It is about listening and being there and taking the time so people can speak their identity and share their story, their culture, their food, their language, and their experiences.

While people may arrive as a refugee that is not who they are, that does not define them. Hospitality is about doing more together. The Immigration Partnership Belong Steering Group defines belonging as, “… an essential human need to be accepted and valued by others in order to reach one’s full potential in connecting, participating, integrating and thriving in the community.” The experience of belonging begins with the experience of hospitality. I am proud to live in this community.

Janet Howitt, Belong Steering Committee Immigration Partnership

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