A letter to a Syrian Refugee

Dear Syrian New Canadian,
Welcome to Canada! I’m sorry I was not at the airport, along with our photogenic Prime Minister, to welcome you to our cold country where the hearts are warm and the feelings are mushy. Actually I was feeling a bit jealous, for when I came to this country nearly 30 years ago from a similarly war-torn one like yours, with a wife and two small children (one sick and the other post-operative), there was no one to welcome us; we just checked into an apartment and started life, funded only by our savings. Oh yes, the diffident immigration officer did say “Welcome to Canada,” after stamping our passports and accepting us as landed immigrants.

Let me re-assure you that you have made a good choice in coming to Canada. But instead of the warm and fuzzies, let me give you a few do’s and don’ts that you need to be aware of here, facts that the immigration brochures do not reveal, as we are, for the most part, a polite nation.

1) Get yourself a job as soon as you can. Any job! Canadian Experience gets you into progressively better jobs faster than all the credentials you can bring from your home country. Besides, the longer you stay unemployed the higher the risk-hire you become. And don’t quit a job before getting the next one. We love to hire currently-employed people because someone else has already done the filtering and taken the risk on you. And when you get a job, work hard at it. Luck is the product of hard work.
2) Unless you wish to reside in Quebec, learn “Canadian English” as soon as you can, replete with “eh”s and “duh”s and other expressions. And when you are stuck for words, throw in stuff like “basically,” “that’s a good question,” “as a matter of fact,” etc – these are acceptable fillers.
3) Do pay your taxes and obey the law. The law here is what makes this country different from where we came from; it’s terribly slow once you get into its clutches, and outcomes are based on compromise not justice. That’s why when two Canadians bump into each other they both say “sorry” and go their way without getting into a punch up or a shoot-out. And don’t try to change this law with imported ones either. We like it methodical and labyrinthine. Just don’t get tangled up with the law and you’ll be fine.
4) Do learn to accommodate your neighbour. That’s how this place works. I don’t know my next door neighbour nor subscribe to his peculiar habits and customs. But I respect his space and he gives me mine and I offer to look after his place when he is away on holidays, and he does the same for me.

1) Don’t try to live on subsidy for longer than you can. We have welfare and medicare and EI and other props. These are very addictive and are only for those genuinely in need.
2) Try to become a net producer rather than a net consumer. We love shopping and buying things we don’t need that only put us in debt, especially after Christmas. This is an Achilles Heel that will ultimately be our undoing. Don’t fall for this trap of living today based on tomorrow’s potential earnings.
3) While you are free to indulge in your customs and rituals that give you your identity, don’t impose them on others. And, like me, you might want to sample, even adopt, some of the customs that make us Canadian: we play Christmas songs from November to December, we go crazy during Hockey season, we unite around a National Anthem that brings a clutch to my throat every time I sing it, we like to criticize our politicians without shooting them, we drink a lot of coffee, flush a lot of toilets and eat doughnuts even if it’s not good for us. Please don’t try to change these customs, because if I don’t hear my Christmas songs on the radio and in public places anymore, I’m going to be pretty pissed off!
4) Make sure your kids get an education, integrate and become Canadian. This “multi-cultural” business is good only to get newcomers through the door. But after a few years here we all have to find some commonality that hangs us all together as Canadians.

This may be a bit much to absorb all at once. Sorry. Besides, you need to bask in the celebrity status with which you have been welcomed into this country; many who came before you have not had this privilege. And you have earned it, after your treacherous voyage from your war-torn homeland. So relax and let it soak in during this Christmas season. But remember, that in these Attention Deficit times, the show will be over very soon, the audience would have moved on to the next big thing and you will be left on the stage, alone, wondering what happened. That’s when I hope you will read and re-read my do’s and don’ts and find them helpful. They are offered from the heart and not from the handbook.

Canada is a land of milk and honey, but only if you bring (or grow) your own cows and bees. Since you have come to this country with nothing more than yourselves and a few belongings, I suggest you cut through the hoopla ASAP (another acronym we use excessively) and get down to seriously growing your personal treasure chest. And with hard work, you will. All the best!

A Fellow New Canadian

P.S. – It might interest you to know that, by definition, you will remain a New Canadian for the rest of your life – another quirk of this place! Enjoy!

I guess we need to talk about the refugees at some point

With Europe being flooded by refugees, and other wealthy countries like the US and Canada hemming and hawing about whether they should take in the displaced ones, and if so, in what numbers, one wonders how this all came to pass. I have some theories and recommendations, but these are mine alone.

Once upon a time, Western Europe was geographically insulated from the hungry hordes in the Third World by the Iron Curtain countries and by a string of dictators in the Middle East and North Africa. And of course North America had the vast Atlantic and Pacific Oceans as buffers, and the US even recently built a giant wall to keep the Mexicans out. Then the Berlin Wall collapsed and the aging population of Western Europe determined that in a globalized world it needed to replenish its labour pool with younger workers from the poorer former-Communist Bloc, so a second tier of EU membership was created, and suddenly Poles were serving in restaurants and bars in England. Then chinks in the larger barrier gave way: dictators were ousted in Libya and Iraq and another was sent into a bunker in Syria. The walls began leaking big-time, transforming this easy conduit for cheap labour into an uncontrollable flood, threatening the protected way of life of the incumbents.

Switch scenes for a moment to the human smuggling industry. Once upon a time, it was called slavery but that term went out of fashion after the American Civil War. “Economic Immigrant” became the new word. And economic immigration has been happening since time immemorial. It is a human imperative of survival to seek a better environment for one’s self and one’s progeny, and it applies to both master and slave. In recent memory, we have witnessed the boat people from Vietnam, the Indian migrant ships, Sri Lankan refugees coming over the US border into Canada in the trunks of cars, and Mexicans swimming across the Rio Grande. (Globalization and outsourcing are also forms of economic migration, for the rich and for their money, lest we forget). When you see the recent flood of refugees include people from places such as Gambia and Pakistan, you know that ISIS is not the only cause for this exodus. The marginalized had always been parked outside the gates of the privileged, waiting for a chink in the fence to make a rush for it. These “rushes” are “facilitated” by clever profiteers who extract money, sell dreams and put the vulnerable in life-threatening situations. And these vile merchants of flesh, saw a great opportunity when the walls punctured in Libya, Iraq and Syria.

Let’s also not forget the arms industry. Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan are export markets for military equipment, brand new or second-hand. And the Western and Middle Eastern allies pitched against rebel groups in these countries are lucrative customers too. These conflicts must continue in Big Guns’ view, despite the collateral damage.

While we can take short term measures to re-settle refugees in the west, despite the hemming and hawing, the real answers lie in six strong initiatives (IMHO):

1) Deal conclusively with barbaric throwbacks like ISIS. We did it with Hitler, why not now? To that bunch we can add all other extremists that fuel hatred. I can think of radical right-wingers and their Trump card—they should be sped onto their self-created isolationism and allowed their own tea party (or gun party), away from the rest of us, where they can pat each other on the back, draw their guns, and self-destruct.

2) Strengthen the war on human trafficking and include all nations in it. Let it not be as ineffective as the war on drugs that only focused on the perpetrators and not on the addicted.

3) Educate people in the developed and developing world in the art of tolerance and of accommodating one’s neighbour. Make them aware that the best chance of a person realizing themselves is in their homeland. And that if people still chose to go west, then teach them that being a good guest and integrating into the host country (that has attracted them with a better economic model) is a wise thing to do. And teach all this to immigrants before they leave, so that they can make an informed decision before they take the big leap.

4) Increase immigration to countries that can absorb newcomers and don’t hypocratize the act by saying that we are doing this only to be generous to refugees. We need young people. Canada’s seniors now outnumber its youth, and we have joined the geriatric club of the rest of the Western world.

5) After #1 and #2 above have been accomplished, dismantle or severely curtail the movements of the arms industry so that they do not facilitate mini wars that create future human exoduses. We did it with Big Tobacco, why not with Big Guns?

6) And face up to our collapsing climate. If not happening already, it will not only be mini-wars that create exoduses in future but droughts, floods and famines, forces that do not respect where they happen, whether in the developing or developed world.

I am sure many more fixes to our global refugee problem are required, but I’ll be content if we can eat the elephant in small bites and if we can crack the above six items for starters.

But now, where are the global politicians with the nerve to take all this on?

The Immigrant Story – has it peaked?

Immigrant stories, or traveller’s tales, have been told for ages. From Homer’s Odyssey, to Dante’s travels across the various other•worlds, to Pilgrim’s Progress, to Michener’s tales of mass immigration, to the tales of displacements taking place after wars and ethnic conflicts, to the recent flood of “Asian immigrant comes to North America” books, we have been engaged, entertained, educated and enlightened with these “quest” stories and novels.

Writers who have never had the immigrant experience have also delved into their ancestral pasts to bring us stories of their forebears who first crossed oceans and founded new homes. There is a parallel with the story of life in these tales, where every day is a new journey that holds surprises, reversals and rewards. But have we had enough? This stuff is so close to reality and reality has always been hard to stomach, especially for this generation that is only licking the dregs of the rewards of the previous one due to a flattened, connected and decaying planet. The immigrant story makes us remember, not forget.

Bring on the entertainment they say – give us vampires and goblins and magicians and super•heroes. Give us situations so unreal that they can be safely relegated to fantasy and escapism. Throw in some graphics, sound and movement, and animate the experience; get us into the story and let us become a character, let us choose the ending – better yet, make it into a video game or a movie and we might be able to palate it. And above all, make us laugh. Make us forget.

Being an immigrant and writing what I know, and wanting to cover a part of history and culture that has been somewhat underrepresented in literature, I have frequently returned to the immigrant story over these last dozen years, producing three novels and many short stories in that genre. It is a journey into memory and into acceptance, sometimes painful, sometimes rewarding, but always enlightening. However, I am finding the demographics of those who read these stories to be shifting and are now found in two segments (a) those in my cohort or older who are trying to remember, and (b) the very young •teenagers • who are looking for clues to their origins. The middle tier has vanished – they either do not read anymore or read only to escape or are playing those video games • and I would so like to see them return.

As I get my next collection of immigrant stories, Paradise Revisited, ready for mass consumption (or should that be selective consumption?) I have to ask myself whether this will be the last in this genre and whether I too should wise up (grow up?) and move on to new fields. Wipe out memory and create fantasy. Or write about what happens when the traveller has put down his roots and travels no more. Will stories of fantasy or of stasis be as interesting? Will my heart and soul be engaged in this new crop of “entertainments?”

An interesting inflection point in the writing journey, and indeed, the journey of life…

Dating Game for Wannabe Skilled Immigrants

When I read the recent headline in our national newspaper announcing that Canada was opening a website where prospective employers and skilled foreign workers could date each other, one side of me was heartened and the other side petrified.

I was heartened, because when I came to this country a quarter century ago under the category of “skilled worker,” lured by the first world, “Brand Canada” lifestyle that was on tap, there were no such dating sites. All the Canadian High Commission in my native homeland had to work from was an outdated, typed list of required skills, among them, Undertaker and Sales Representative. Well, as I have a slight problem working with dead bodies, I qualified as a sales representative. When I arrived here, I got a bit of a shock: there were sales reps coming out of all nooks and crannies, including the mass produced ones from those dreaded telemarketing sweat shops. Thankfully, I used my “selling skills” to land myself another job, not one on the High Commission’s list, thankfully.

I was petrified at this news headline, because I have seen that first world lifestyle erode over the years, where the skilled workers of my generation have been reduced to a nation of Walmart and Dollar store frequent flyers, where training and retraining for displaced workers have been cut, where the unemployed or underemployed are those now 50•60 year old once•skilled workers and their progeny, the 20•30 year•olds who received a university education and an attitude as a reward from their parents; a whole segment of the middle class relegated to the wings while a new crop of skilled immigrants replace them. The dating game will make it easier to say, “Screw the locals, they cost too much and have higher expectations, let’s bring in the lean, mean and hungry.”

I still believe in the immigrant dream. It’s a rich experience that grows the soul, if not the pocket book. But Canada’s status as an “immigrant country” does not absolve it of its obligations towards preserving that first world lifestyle – its key selling point to newcomers. And that includes growing and maintaining a healthy middle class. And there is no free ride in not having to pay for education and training within the country and merely plucking the best and brightest from overseas who have been educated at the cost of their national governments, capitalizing on a foreign tin•pot dictator or corrupt regime that do not see the value of their human resources.

And the caveat emptor for the wannabe skilled immigrant is, “Are you willing to get only about 20 years of benefit from this system (that is, if you arrive before the age of 30. If you come later, the reaping period is exponentially shorter) before you are put out to pasture or forced to use your entrepreneurial skills to start your own business?” Skills atrophy over time and today’s skilled worker is tomorrow’s re•trainee. If we cut the re•training, there is an even shorter shelf•life for the skilled worker. Re•training should also be comprehensive to recognize the aging worker; we cannot always be on an upward career trajectory: the careerist should be trained for jobs that go up the ladder and others that descend gracefully with age, maintaining dignity and respect for the individual at all times– another hallmark of the first world lifestyle.

Ah, but then all this could be too much to ask, when the temptation is there to slink back to that dating site and lure another skilled sucker to our shores.

Completing the Circle

I did not have the opportunity to go backpacking in Europe during my undergraduate years when it was a fashionable rite of passage among North Americans, and a safe one, for if you ran out of money you could always wire home for more. Although I did go to Europe once in my early twenties, without much money, because my home country had banned the export of foreign exchange, and I lived off the largesse of whomever I bumped into in those historic cities. I returned home quite emaciated on that occasion – but that’s another story.

This time however, I had the money, the patience and the time to explore a corner of Europe with my trusty backpack. I walked a lot, and the result was soul•enriching. I went primarily to get a feel for the major cities in the Alsace•Lorraine region where I have set my next novel, a historical piece taking place in the late eighteenth century. It was wise not to rely too much on Google and Wikipedia for my research; visiting a locale gives depth and texture to the research done on paper or on the Internet.

It was good to get up in the morning and see the Vosges mountains, just as my hero would have done two hundred years ago, to view their changing colour on the skyline at different times of the day. To walk older parts of the cities of Metz, Nancy, Strasbourg and Luxembourg and distinguish which buildings had been around in the eighteenth century vs. those that had been erected later but modeled in eighteenth century (or earlier) style. To imagine what it would have felt like wearing tunics and boots and riding down cobblestoned streets in horse drawn carriages at a time when the slightest shift in political wind could see one thrown into a dungeon or guillotined (execution still happens in some parts of the world even though the guillotine has gone out of fashion). It was refreshing to get wet in the early fall drizzle that came down every day and warm up with a generous goblet of wine later and know that one would not easily succumb to the consumption, thanks to the advent of antibiotics.

It was alarming to be reminded that “might is still right” however much we cloak the message in respectability and “position” it with modern media; the only redeeming feature is that modern megalomaniacs do not build such disproportionate edifices of self•aggrandizement like the cathedrals and palaces of Medieval Europe (except perhaps in some despotic dictatorships), many of which have become tourist attractions and museum pieces today. But it was good to be reminded of how far we have come in liberalism, how removed we have become from religion’s stifling cloak since the days of Inquisitions, and how far our politics has moved from Reigns of Terror (although these still happen in some parts of the world). It was also good to be reminded of how much leisure and the pursuit of art and culture is still appreciated on the other side of the Atlantic despite a globalizing society caught up in the instantaneous culture of the handheld PDA.

And what was most enlightening to me was the evidence of continual human migration. To set up camp in a different location periodically must lead to growth. The hero in my novel left this part of Europe to seek his fortune, and after travelling halfway around the world, landed in an island in the Indian Ocean. His progeny dispersed all over the world to seek theirs several generations later, some ending up in North America. And here was I, completing that circle and going back to the place where it had all begun, walking those same streets and asking the eternal question of the immigrant, the question asked in many of my novels and stories: “why?”

Do titles sell books?

I know that covers sell books, well, at least for now, before e•books run us over, but do titles do the same? Is it best to plagiarize an existing best•selling title, and modify it a bit to ensure that unintended searches will unearth your book and present it to an unsuspecting reader? I know I had some unasked•for success when my last novel After the Flood came out a few months after a more famous book called The Year of the Flood (honest, I did not plagiarize here, I had been toiling at my tome for over seven years and had a mass of publishers and other gatekeepers to wade through before I arrived at my launch party, late, as to be expected)

Or is it better to use the most unremarkable title like The (Something) or a longer one like the curious incident of when I went to buy groceries and met a long cool woman in a black dress? Or adapt one of those biblical passages that Hemingway was so fond of using even if it has no relevance to the story: I lie me down in green pastures.

I have been struggling to find the title for a collection of linked stories that I would like to see published next. These stories cover the immigrant experience from both sides: the home country and the host country, and deals with the unfinished business often left behind, the emotional baggage that prevents the immigrant from making that final commitment to his new home, to what was originally just a leap of faith. I started with Unfinished Business, then I found out that there were plenty of titles under that moniker; also it could be mistaken for a poorly written business book. I lingered over Memories – too soppy and melodramatic. Departure Stains was next, but it sounded like someone had taken a dump on the old country and run away in a hurry seeking sanctuary in the new home (which is true of some shadier immigrants, but is not a general condition). From Both Sides Now is the name of a famous song, so I discarded that one. In desperation, I thought of Untitled but even that has been taken several times over. My Short Stories would be too immature, Immigrant Stories would be better as a sub•title, and I Can’t Bloody Find A Name For This Book would definitely sound paranoid.

I thought of asking my publisher. After all, they are going to market my book, let them do some work. But then I could see their rebound question hitting me squarely in the face: “You can’t even articulate the meaning of your book with an appropriate title? Okay – Reject Pile. Next!”

Dear readers, you seem to be my last resort. If you have an idea, please let me know. Perhaps cyberspace will come to my rescue, and as Frasier Crane said, “I am listening…”