By Jim Tune
I’m not overly patriotic. Most Canadians aren’t. We have no equivalent to country singer Lee Greenwood’s song “God Bless the U.S.A.” with its nationalistic and stirring refrain, “I’m proud to be an American where at least I know I’m free.”
All that said, a news flash popped up in my Twitter feed a few months ago that made me extraordinarily proud of my country. Originally tweeted by Neville Park, this message quickened this Canadian’s pulse: “MEANWHILE IN CANADA: Syrian refugees arriving. Airport is worried they will be overwhelmed by well-wishers.” Syrian refugees? Overwhelmed by well-wishers? Yes!
The first several hundred of an expected 25,000 Syrian refugees had arrived at Toronto Pearson International Airport. Later, on the TV news, it stirred my heart to see spontaneous receiving lines formed by ordinary Canadians at the arrival gates. The first refugee families to walk through the gates were met with applause and friendly shouts of “welcome home!” Some college students had travelled from Guelph (about 65 minutes from the airport) to present gift cards for sandwiches and coffee at Canada’s iconic coffee chain, Tim Horton’s.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Ontario’s premier, and Toronto’s mayor were on hand to greet the new arrivals. “You are home,” Trudeau said. “Welcome home.”
Prior to the plane’s arrival, Trudeau reflected, “They step off the plane as refugees, but they walk out of this terminal as permanent residents of Canada. . . . This is something that we are able to do in this country because we define a Canadian not by skin color or a language or a religion or a background, but by a shared set of values, aspirations, hopes, and dreams that not just Canadians but people around the world share.”
Claudia and I recently stayed at a Sheraton hotel outside of Toronto for a couple of nights. We rarely have our dog with us, but this was a short trip and the hotel was dog friendly. The hotel was also the temporary home for about 80 new Syrian refugees, comprised almost entirely of women and children and the elderly. I was able to say “hi” to a few of them. They had nothing. They were meek, diminutive, and glad to be in Canada. Most of them spoke little or no English.
Several times a day Claudia would walk Murphy, our 15-year-old Springer Spaniel, through the hotel corridor to the foyer outside. Murphy was a hit with the Syrians. They couldn’t speak English, so Claudia would gesture to invite them to pet the dog. Some of them were afraid. Some, I’m sure, thought it odd to see a dog presumably living in a nice hotel. One old man, in particular, grew attached to Murphy. He would whistle quietly—a low soft whistle that would cause Murphy to pull the leash toward him. They saw each other several times a day. Always the low whistle followed by a scratch behind the ears for the dog. No English. Just a kind gesture demonstrating the universality of our humanness.
We were getting into our car after checking out. There was a low whistle as the Syrian came to say goodbye. The unspoken mutual affection was tangible. From inside my car I said “good-bye” and Claudia whispered, “Welcome home.”