May 20, 2022

Engines and Fuel

I just finished reading the short novel What Strange Paradise by Canadian journalist and author Omar El Akkad. In Chapter 20 the smuggler's apprentice Mohamed says something simply awful and cynical to the passengers on the ancient run-down fishing boat that carries them across the Mediterranean to a shore they hope will provide a better life than the war-torn places they left behind:

        "You sad, stupid people," he said. "Look what you've done to yourselves. The West you talk about doesn't exist. It's a fairy tale, a fantasy you sell yourself because the alternative is to admit that you're the least important character in your own story. You invent an entire world because your conscience demands it, you invent good people and bad people and you draw a neat line between them because your simplistic morality demands it. But the two kinds of people in this world aren't good and bad -- they're engines and fuel. Go ahead, change your country, change your name, change your accent, pull the skin right off your bones, but in their eyes they will always be engines and you will always, always be fuel."

The irony of the smuggler's apprentice spewing the above as he is facilitating the migrants' journey to the West, making money off it, no less, seems lost on him. I definitely do not pretend to know much about the Middle East's history of troubles, but the fact that the leaders of much of those lands promote a deep mistrust of the West is well-known (and in some cases well founded). Still, people flock by the thousands in leaky boats and rafts in uncertain waters, wearing poor quality pdf's, risking life and life-savings in search of what the West seems to stand for. 

I have always been interested in origin stories. I enjoy learning how people got to where they are now. If I meet someone from a foreign country I often ask what brought them to Canada. I remember one woman who is now a friend answered that question with "Amnesty International and the Catholic Church. My dad was a wanted man for speaking out against the dictator of our country". Having lived a comparatively sheltered and privileged life, I acknowledge how out of touch I can be with the true, lived struggles of people who leave everything behind, often including the graves of many loved ones killed in armed conflicts or raids, to come to a country like Canada. I have to read books like What Strange Paradise to try and internalize some of what these immigrants experience. Or, I ask my hairstylist who was a Vietnamese boat person. He, too, got on a boat with his brother and father not knowing if they would live or die on the crossing to a new land. He is proud of the life he and his family have built here, and he and his wife, like many immigrants, work very hard. He has told me more than once that Canadians don't know how good we've got it. 

When I was working at my friend's tulip festival this past April I was reminded of how much it resembles an international airport during holiday times, or perhaps the UN. Every possible skin colour, ethnicity, and accent is represented (okay, a slight exaggeration, but you get the picture) Languages flow around me like bubbling streams. I love it. This year I worked in the farm shop where we sell potted and cut flowers, souvenirs, treats and drinks. As I greeted each customer I took the opportunity to be as welcoming as possible. I made short conversation with each of them and found my smiles returned. Each customer has an origin story. Each customer has as much right to be on this earth as I do, no matter where they were born. Many of them have earned that right much more than I have by the risks they have taken and the sacrifices they have made to leave all that is familiar. I am grateful not to think like the smuggler's apprentice, dividing humans into engines and fuel, and I need to continue to work in my small way to make Canada a place that gives equal opportunity to all. 

We can all be engines and fuel for each other. 

Until next time, 


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