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A New Season
By Father Antony Gabriel
I feel that God is traveling
so much in me, with the dark and the sea.
With him we go along together. It is getting dark.
With him we get dark. All orphans…
But I feel God. And it even seems
that he sets aside some good color for me.
He is kind and sad, like those who care for the sick;
he whispers with sweet contempt like a lover’s:
his heart must give him great pain.
Neruda and Vallejo
On a cold wintry February evening (1987), something new and yet quite fami1iar occurred. Seventeen young men showed up at the door of the Church from Lebanon. How they came is almost a story in itself. Since that bleak February night over a thousand people have come to the Church for help. Orthodox, Maronite, Melchite, Muslim have arrived in Montreal from Lebanon, Syria and other parts of the Arab world and have approached the Church for jobs, shelter, food, furniture, clothing, family reunification, immigration, money etc. etc. They were all ripped from their loved country by the horrors of the war. Many having lost their families and friends to this senseless conflict.
It is difficult to tell this story because it is not the author’s interest to either solicit funds or to seem self—aggrandizing. But it is a story that must be told. The familiar aspect is in the immense wave of new immigrants fleeing their homeland, and their banding around the Church to do. The middle aged widow expressed an immensity of sorrow that was not to be consoled. A hug, a few words are feeble attempts…
In order to accommodate their sense of belonging, a early liturgy in Arabic has been instituted celebrated by Father Basil Solounias and Chanter Fawzi Bishara. Wadiah Kara and his friends organized the Mouvement Jeunesse Orthodoxe which today numbers about two hundred young people who study the Bible in Arabic with Seminarian Waddah El Chekh and organize social events.
I wish I could profile for the reader all the gripping tales on the suffering that touches us on a daily basis. I’ll do one. A month ago, a family arrived. We sponsored them here. Their home was blown up. They lost a young daughter and the father had his hand blown off. They are a large family. The Church had to start from scratch to help them in their new situation. When they arrived to the Church, they brought a jar of honey from Lebanon, just to say thanks. Sorrow was so deeply etched on their faces that it pierced all our hearts to the core.
This is a whole new ministry, not only for me, but for the entire Parish. The Parish staff has had to cope with the normal operating business of the Church with many heart— breaking family stories. People coming and going; and many, we loose track of afterwards.
In an attempt to locate them all because some keep moving, a Christmas dinner is being held after Christmas Day.
One major problem for many is the lack of education. The endless war in Lebanon made education erratic at best. Many young people have almost rudimentary literary skills. In general, for all, the transition period is humbling. While in Lebanon in spite of the war, they still had homes and a type of family security. The ambiance of the country kept certain values intact. Today, in Canada, the “scales” have fallen from their eyes and they are forced to carve out a new existence; and to face new problems. Imagine the psychological ramifications.
Engineers, accountants, doctors, lawyers and all the professionals who joined the ranks of the new immigrants find themselves doing menial tasks to etch out a living. I have gone to visit all the apartments and one discovers the barest necessities; and many people sharing the same tiny living space and facilities.
Thank God the parish and community has responded by offering jobs. Adel Elian, Norman Hanna and others have stretched themselves locating employment. It is no easy task. The refugees are not allowed to work. The government provides some money for them; however, it is an insult to their dignity. One day, I asked for a meeting with officials from the Federal and Provincial governments to meet with a few young people to discuss their problems. Well, can you believe it, over two hundred people showed up pleading with the officials to change their policy. “We want jobs, not charity. We thank Canada for receiving us, we want to carry the load and give something back to our host country”.
The Senior Men’s Club and the Helping Hand Committee co—hosted a welcome dinner for all the young men that flowed into Quebec. When offered money, the initial reaction was: “Thank you for your generosity but we want to work. “ We have since protested to the government that allows the entrance of refugees but doesn’t permit them to work for a lengthy period until their dossiers are processed.
The Antiochian Woman appointed Adel Courey, Mona Megelas, and Claudette Lawand to help us in this worthy endeavor. Hundreds of beds, and other household items have been delivered in the past six months to families in need. Even the Ladies Aid Society (LSCA) under the stewardship of Siham Khoury, Celia Rossy and Julie Boosamra Kouri have responded. But under the present crisis and circumstances, it still is not enough. There are simply too many people in need.
It is quite an experience to spend several days a week while people stream into our offices and the older men and women cry like babies because of their plight. No words can adequately convey how it feels to want to give solace in their agony and yet one feels so helpless. Just listening, I guess is almost enough. Their tears are a real baptism of pain. Every Sunday in Church, I noticed a women in black crying. I asked to see her the next day. Weeping she told me of her seven children left at home and was perplexed what as their place of refuge. And the second familiar aspect, is how they live together and care for each other. It is reminiscent of the days of my sitto and jiddo when they came to Montreal from Zahle, Lebanon at the turn of the century. When I see the old pictures and those sad but proud faces, I can see the same reality in the eyes of our new people. They did not leave Lebanon because they wanted to, but out of sheer survival… And yet within their souls is a longing to return one day.
Some time ago, I wrote to the hierarchs in the “old country” to inform them of our readiness to help. Canada, and Quebec have been generous with their “Lebanese Program” in the past and we would do our best to assist their spiritual children. Never in my wildest imagination did I ever dream of the repercussions. The Program has ended and yet the refugees stream in on a daily basis from everywhere. Each one with a unique personal history.
There are two distinct groups. The wealthy businessmen from Western Europe who have terminated their contracts in the Gulf region — and they are no problem; and the huge amount of young people seeking a life where there is no strife or war. Somewhere in between are middle aged men and women who have little practical skills and have lost everything: homes, jobs, family and their meagre savings by today’s standards, and are totally bewildered by the adjustment to a whole new way of life — let alone the harsh winters.
Our Archdiocese and Churches must have outstretched hearts and hands to heal the new “Jobs” who have lost so much due to the tragedy in their homeland that has even stripped them of their human dignity. Again, I ask for your prayers for all; there is a new season for giving and sharing…