The arrival of the Syrian refugees in Canada has left me thinking a lot about my Lebanese grandmother, whom I knew by the traditional name, Sitti.
What was life like for her, as events over which she had little control landed her in Atlantic Canada?
Amelia Laba (Amelia Stephen was her assigned English name) was born in the mountains of Lebanon in 1901. Before her second birthday, her parents left Amelia in her maternal grandmother’s care and emigrated to America, but not before arranging their daughter’s engagement to my Jiddi (grandfather). He was then 21.
My Sitti was raised by her grandmother, who, before my Sitti was 12, packed up their belongings and set off to Canada to introduce her granddaughter to her husband-to-be. The fiancée, my grandfather, had been in Canada since 1896, returning to Lebanon only once, to secure his future bride.
But in France, my Sitti’s grandmother failed a health inspection and was quarantined. Entrusted to another relative, the adolescent my Sitti set sail for North America.
Imagine waiting on the docks knowing you’d never again see your home, or heading off with a stranger not knowing where you were going, or what awaited you or even the person you had been committed to wed? It had to be terrifying.
Her story includes a missed passage, rescue by the Red Cross; further details remain unclear, and some I heard as a child that now seem not even in the realm of possibility. Yet we do know that she landed in the U.S, and traveled overland, with yet another relative, to Saint Stephen, N.B where she was smuggled across the border hidden in a false-bottomed wagon.
My Sitti was an illegal alien. (In due time she became a citizen.) What was it like, to be a child under the Ottoman occupation of Lebanon? What was it like to be told you were leaving? How deeply imprinted was the fear of capture, and the terror of imagining the consequences of falling into the hands of the authorities?
In 1915, just shy of her 14 birthday she married my Jiddi.
He was 33. As she stood at the altar at the Bishop’s Palace, did she imagine a different life? Did she question within herself the adults who determined her path?
Like many Middle-Eastern refugees in Canada, my Jiddi — Raymond Michael Tobias – initially worked as a peddler because he could not get other work. Jiddi eventually became a “successful” merchant and land owner. By the time he was married he had helped form the Lebanese Syrian Protection Association to buffer the community from the abuse they suffered at the hands of non-Middle Eastern people in the city.
So I wonder about my Sitti’s experience as a child bride and then a mother. Undoubtedly she worried about what would happen to her children and her husband. Did she worry about her own safety?
How many stares or sideways glances did she have to ignore as she shopped or entered the Cathedral for mass? How many times did she pretend not to hear the label “Sheeny,” a racial slur applied to people of Jewish and Middle Eastern origin? She became a citizen but did she ever escape the category of “those people” or “them”?
My Sitti was part of a wave of Lebanese immigration that came ashore in Saint John in the late 1800s and early 1900s. A century later we are well integrated into Canadian society. Now we are doctors, lawyers, judges, internationally known musicians, social service providers, priests and ministers, elected government officials, global business leaders, actors, small business owners and entrepreneurs – in short, as diverse, contributory and connected as anyone.
My Sitti would have seen or even imagined little of that. All of which is why thoughts of my Sitti and of refugees from Syria are inextricably entwined.
Can we even imagine what a refugee feels? However, smooth the transition, everything is utterly foreign. Whatever lies ahead, all that was left behind can never be regained.
We have seen many stories of amazing welcomes and efforts to offer our new Syrian neighbours Canadian experiences ranging from tobogganing to making maple syrup. As grateful as I am for those examples, I know that in the background lurks the category of “them” and “those people.”
And we fear “them” and “those people,” whether displayed as outright hatred and open bigotry, or in unspoken disquiet. Will they take our jobs? Will those people fit in? How long will I have to support them” And perhaps most toxic “How do I spot the terrorists among them? — When will they come for us?”
I think of my grandparents and wonder, how long does it take for all the new “them” to become “us?”
The word “refugee” is not a common form in Scripture. But “foreigner,” “alien,” and “stranger” are referenced about 200 times.
One such reference is Lev. 19:34. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God. Or as Jesus would say; … I was a stranger, and you invited Me in . . . Mt. 25:35.
Taken together, those passages make clear the divine will: the alien dwelling in the nation has an amazing array of rights and further, people of faith are instructed to welcome the alien with extreme hospitality and to commit themselves to ensuring the rights of the newcomer.
It is the righteous thing to do. Jonathan Sacks, the former chief Rabbi of Great Britain has stated. “The Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) in one verse commands, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself,’ but in no fewer than 36 places commands us to ‘love the stranger.’ The supreme religious challenge is to see God’s image in one who is not in our image.”
Perhaps when we can lovingly welcome refugees as “us” we become more like the people God intended we should be.
– Blessings … Rick Tobias
Whose Little Boy Are You?
Marti Shannon a Canadian musician who grew up in Saskatoon, SK and released her only album in 1966. “Whose Little Boy Are You” was written as a civil rights song but certainly has relevance to every refugee child trying to make their way to a better life.
DOING THEIR PART
Doing their part is a way for me to show appreciation for people I’ve met who have been influential over me (and often many others), or who simply are impressively committed, insightful or effective in pursuing compassion and justice.
Amelia Tobias nee Laba.
I have a lot of good memories of my Sitti. I picture her baking flat Lebanese “mountain bread,” cooking for my extended family and laughing and smiling when we visited. I remember the bed I slept in when I stayed over. I remember her caring for me as a child when I had a bad sunburn.
One of the strongest memories I can still see is my Sitti sitting quietly at the kitchen table praying. A Maronite Christian by birth she became a devout Catholic in Canada. I can still see her large black-beaded rosary. She prayed it every day, often more than once.She is the only person I remember who prayed for the sake of praying, for the joy of it. Others prayed in church or said a grace before a meal but my Sitti loved to pray. She prayed for me and occasionally she would invite me to come and pray a “decade” of the rosary (one segment) with her.
My Sitti died when I was 12, long before any real faith had been birthed in me. But I have come to feel a direct spiritual connection between her prayers and my life as a Baptist minister and care giver. Everything I have been part of has been touched by her piety. I like that. Unknown to the world, unassuming, alone in her kitchen, she did her part.