I remember when Somalian refugees began arriving in Toronto in the early 90’s, as a civil war rendered their home nation dangerous and uncertain, and no place for families to live – or anyone, for that matter, who wished to walk in peace on this Earth.
They were generally large families, often accompanied by attentive mothers who wore burqas made of light and flowing fabrics; garments which blew in the stiff lake breeze that often sweeps the city of Toronto, stretched as it is along the northern shore of Lake Ontario.
Many slept in the cramped single rooms of the old 1950’s motels that line Kingston Rd, while they waited for a foothold in this vast, strange, and not-always welcoming country. Others took up residence in the basement apartments that lie beneath many of the large suburban homes of Scarborough, hunkering into this new land that managed to be both stifling hot in summer, and abjectly cold in winter.
I have a few overriding impressions about those new Canadians that have stayed with me through the years since: Kind people, with easy smiles. Quiet smaller children who stayed close by their mother’s skirts. And stoic older children who made their way into the not entirely welcome-looking educational institutions of outer Toronto, many of which had been thrown up in a hurry in the utilitarian years following World War II.
There was a maturity and composure among all of the Somalians, but it was most evident in the children especially; who should have been too young to have had these qualities in much quantity yet, but had it in spades anyway.
Ilhan Omar is two years younger than I. She came to the United States at this time that I am speaking of. I obviously don’t know her, but I did witness the arrival of many like her. I saw them enter new classrooms for the first time, after long, difficult, and uncertain trips to get there. I heard them being welcomed by some, but also made fun of and instructed to go back where they came from by others.
What struck me then, in the interactions between those privileged enough to have called the broad safety of a warless continent “home” all of their lives, and those who’d had to live in desert camps for years before getting to do so, was the difference in depth with which each side of these encounters was living. And I see the same thing in this morning’s news, as we all wake up to images of small people, shouting tiny thoughts, at a rally in North Carolina. What is striking is the shallowness of those grabbing at the easiest of insults and laziest of thoughts, in telling a newcomer they are not welcome.
Against perhaps the noblest, and deepest, of human songs: I belong.