“I have no Canadian friends.”
My new acquaintance from Iraq said this factually, but with a bit of wistfulness in his voice.
He was enjoying his ESL classes, studying hard to learn as much English as possible so he could eventually join the workforce and continue to better his life here in Canada.
But most of the ESL students in his class were from the same part of the world as he was and therefore spoke his first language. He wanted to practice with Canadians who couldn’t speak his first language and would therefore force him to speak English.
But, although this eager learner had lived in Canada for a few years already, there were still no Canadians he could call friends.
I’m sure you agree that this doesn’t seem right.
Cold and Warm Cultures
Have you ever heard of the difference between “cold” cultures and “warm” cultures?
Cold cultures are all about the individual. They emphasis the value of a person making choices for his or her own life, such as what career to pursue or how to raise their children. Becoming “all you can be” is the goal, and doing it yourself with as little help as possible is often praised.
Warm cultures, on the other hand, are all about community. In these cultures it is very important to belong to a group, whether that means a family or neighbourhood. The opinions of the group consensus are more important than your own. So, when the group says you need to marry so-and-so, that’s what you are expected to do.
There are positives and negatives to both extremes.
Canada, where I live, is a “cold”culture. (Any surprises there?) We generally believe in working hard to fulfill our personal dreams, freely expressing our own opinions, and living life the way each of us thinks is best.
It’s easy for me, as a Canadian, to see the virtues in this kind of culture and to see the negatives in a culture that would discourage me from “being myself”.
But I do think some important things are lost in a culture that emphasizes individualism too much.
For example, after become a mom, I realized very quickly that community is way more important that I had realized.
When you bring a crying baby home to live with you, suddenly it become very apparent that you just can’t do it all. Caring for the baby, doing the household chores (with some help from hubby), nurturing your own needs, pursuing your career and other dreams… the “ideal” picture of mom in North American is really not possible–or at least she is really, really stressed out.
Moms can’t do it all themselves and a “warm” culture gets that. In many of these countries, a mom of a baby often has more than enough help with the child (letting her get the rest and sleep she needs), plenty of help with household chores, and constant social outlets.
The Refugee Experience
You are used to friends and neighbours dropping by at any time and socializing, family helping with childcare and other tasks, and everyone just enjoying life together.
But then your country has some tremendous political or social problems, and you know you need to run away to protect yourself and your children.
So you take the long, emotional journey to relocate to a new, safe country.
And you are beyond grateful.
Having a new place to call home where you are free to practice your culture and religion, raise your children where they can go to school and set their eyes on a good future, as well as simply sleep in peace and safety is a dream come true.
But it isn’t always easy. And as time goes on and you make very few friends with the nationals that live around you, it’s easy to start feeling lonely, nostalgic, and even depressed.
You miss the camaraderie that you left behind.
There’s no way, of course, you’d go back… but you were hoping and expecting to feel enveloped in community in your new home, as well.
This alienated feeling is new and not what you hoped for.
Jesus in Disguise
As Christians, we know that Jesus said, “Whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me”. In Jesus’ summary of what that would look like, he described meeting the needs of the hungry, thirsty, those without enough clothes, and those sick or in prison (Matt 25 NIV).
He also said specifically, “When I had no place to stay, you welcomed me into your home.” (Matt 25: 38 ERV)
This applies on a national level, for sure.
How grateful I am that this country welcomed my grandparents who were seeking better opportunities than were in their war-torn country after World War II. And I’m so happy that this country continues to extend it’s open arms to those who need safety and a new, better life.
But this applies on the individual level, as well.
We might understandably think, “Our country generously opens its doors to immigrants. It provided services such as English classes, health care, etc. Shouldn’t they be thankful for that?”
Yes, for sure. These are tremendous blessings given by our government and its citizens. But as we all know, a nice, safe home isn’t the only thing necessary for happiness and fulfillment.
A community of people who welcomes and loves us makes all the difference to our quality of life.
It’s good and natural for new immigrants to gravitate towards those who speak their language, who understand the process and emotions of moving to a new country, and who can therefore make them feel more at home.
But at the same time, if newcomers rarely meet people who were born in their new country who extend their arms and open their homes to them, what are they to think?
Let’s Be Community
I really want to encourage each one of us–including myself– to think about more ways we can show hospitality to those who so need a warm smile, a kind word, or a welcoming meal.
Many immigrants and refugees have left most of their family members and friends behind and miss them a lot.
Let’s be community to them.
I think there’s no reason why a new immigrant needs to feel lonely and isolated in our country. There’s more than enough love and friendship to go around.
In fact, I think we can truly make a refugee’s experience of living in a new country a very positive one.
If you are from a “cold” culture like I am (or even if not), let’s think about how we can take some small steps to truly extend more warmth towards our immigrant neighbours.
Here are a few ideas:
- a simple smile in the grocery store or while passing someone on the sidewalk goes a long way to help people feel positive about life and the people around them.
- you could exchange phone numbers or e-mail addresses with a newcomer and offer to practice English with them sometime.
- you could invite an individual or family over for tea. Though some Muslim neighbours may be nervous about accepting a meal that may not be “halal”, please don’t let that discourage you. They are often beyond happy to welcome you into their own home and serve you their delicious food– receiving guests is an honour in their culture.
- you could volunteer in a English conversation circle.
- you could have a potluck party where everyone brings a dish from their own culture and shares with the others and then plays simple games together, like soccer or Pictionary.
- it’s great to ask questions of your new friends– about their culture and country –and seek to learn from them. Not only will your worldview grow, but you will help them feel valued.
- you may naturally feel nervous to start a conversation with someone who doesn’t seem to know much English. You might wonder if they’ll understand you and vice versa. But I encourage you that any little efforts on your part– whether completely understood or not– will touch a new immigrant’s heart more than the actual words. If someone’s English level really does seem to be low, try just using simple words and actions to get your meaning across.
Let’s not be like those who will say “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty? When did we see you without a place to stay? Or when did we see you without clothes or sick or in prison? When did we see any of this and not help you?” (Matt. 25).
Let’s be those that really take steps to welcome our immigrant and refugee neighbours –not just into our country, but into our communities, hearts, and homes.
This will likely make a huge difference in their lives– one that they will never forget, but also will bless our own lives, too–probably more than we can imagine.
What other ideas do you have about how to extend the warmth of community to new people to your country?