I held my phone out the passenger side window, gripping my Popsocket tight. For a moment, I wondered how much truth there was to Popsocket’s claims of a secure grip, but it was fleeting. I pressed record. The train tore through tunnels on the other side of the lake, the rhythm of which I could feel in my chest cavity. Flashes of red and orange and blue CP and Canadian Tire shipping containers breaking up the deep, soulful green of the forest-wrapped mountains and reflecting on the midnight-blue of the lake. We’d arrived at Three Valley Gap just in time to catch the train and have our breath sucked from our lungs by the immeasurable beauty of British Columbia.
On our way back from Lethbridge, we were winding down the Trans-Canada Highway, absorbing the cobalts and turquoises and pointing out the glaciers like jewels breaking up the monotony of the breathing, thick forests. My heart swelled with pride. This is my home, I thought.
We’d stop to let the puppy stretch her legs, fill our lungs with crisp air, freshly filtered through the foliage of a National Park. I could pick up lingering scents of pine and wet rock and antlers and lighting-zapped birch bark. The ground never failed to crunch beneath my feet, layers of moss supporting nests of needles and twigs and my dog would pose, pointing her nose in the direction of the nearest chipmunk or maybe she smelled a moose.
We were almost home. Just as soon as the landscape went from lush, wet green to dry, brown, brittle and covered delicately with the lace of vineyards, we’d be there. Back to our lake. Back to our mountains. Back to our deer and coyotes and bears and cougars.
Back to the window I’m looking out of now, above the mist resting atop the orchards, the smell of fermenting fruit and lakebed slipping through the cracked open pane.
This is my home. This province is where I was born. I’ve left a few times, but I’ve always come back to the crisp chill of winter and the fresh, clean air and the cozy embrace of the mountains. The delicate balance between the conveniences of modern-day life and the wild outdoors being right on your doorstep.
It’s not lost on me, the immense privilege that I have. I live in a natural playground, I mingle with wildlife to get my mail, and the worst crimes I worry about are stolen bikes and text spam. My healthcare is covered, my kids’ educations are covered, I have choices for dinner. I sleep soundly while the coyotes sing on the hill under the stars and I never have to worry if anyone is going to kill me.
Our first night in Lethbridge was muggy and warm. After checking into our hotel rooms and unpacking a little, I collected my mom from her room, and we walked our dogs. Behind the hotel, there was a small neighbourhood, tree-lined streets that were reminiscent of the areas my mom grew up in back in Vancouver. We wandered at dusk, letting the pups sniff where they might, and my mom told me the family staying next to her room was from Burma, and they were refugees. I was tired after two days of being on the road, so it didn’t register right away that she’d meant Myanmar, where the genocide of the Rohingya people was bleeding out in the western news.
It wasn’t until the next morning, when I met the family myself, that I realized where they were from and why they were here. I saw the women covered head to toe, despite the temperatures hitting the 30s that day in Lethbridge. I finally clued in. This was a Rohingya family from Myanmar. They are literally here because otherwise they’d be murdered, I thought.
There were three bright-eyed little boys and two girls, a mother and a father. I couldn’t communicate with them. All they knew how to say was “From Burma” and that they were refugees. Also, thank you and of course, sorry, because that’s the first thing you learn on the road to becoming Canadian.
They couldn’t tell me what they’d been through, but I knew about it. I couldn’t imagine how this family felt, but I had knowledge of the mess in Myanmar. I knew they were doing the only thing they could do to save their family. I knew, beyond any doubt, I’d have done the same.
I’m not a patriotic person. I loathe the misplaced pride in the outcome of birthplace roulette. But every time I saw that family and had the opportunity to smile at them, I felt immense pride. I was so proud that when those parents knocked on our door looking to save their children, we happily opened it and gave them a safe home, food and clothes.
Now they don’t have to worry that anyone is going to kill them, either. A privilege that was brand new to this smiling, grateful Burmese family of seven.
Cut to: yesterday morning when I had someone tell me that I hate religious people. If there’s anything that I loathe hearing the most in response to what I do here, it’s that. I get this a lot. One can be openly critical of conservatism, but people generally understand that doesn’t mean one hates conservatives. I am free to shit-talk Steelers fans to my heart’s content without the dirty, rotten Steelers fan thinking I hate them. I can disagree with you on how to raise children, how to train puppies and what to put on your dinner plate and none of those disagreements means we hate each other. But when I say to you that I don’t share your belief in god, or I don’t believe that faith is a good thing or that I think action is preferred over prayer, for some reason, people seem to think this means I hate you.
This particular instance came up during a conversation about thoughts and prayers. Of course, because I prefer action over thoughts and prayers and sometimes even find the offer of thoughts and prayers to be hollow and distasteful, that’s a clear indication that I hate religious people. Even though many religious people share my position on thoughts and prayers, when I hold that position, as a rotten, evil heathen, of course, it’s only indicative of hatred and nothing more.
I want you to stop and think for a moment, though. I want you to go back to that Rohingya family in Lethbridge. I want you to think of the army of people, from Myanmar to Lethbridge, who had to help to get this family to Alberta. The family couldn’t communicate with me, but we don’t need them to tell us that there had to be plenty of cogs working together, across borders and languages, all in unison to get a family of seven refugee status in a developed country.
There’d likely been a refugee camp run by volunteers whose only reward was knowing they were doing the right thing while surrounded by slaughter.
There had to have been donors who kept the camp stocked with food and beds and medical supplies.
There were activists and lobbyists back here in Canada that helped our politicians make decisions that keeps Canada a welcoming country for refugees.
Then, there were the politicians and lawmakers themselves who heard the desires of the Canadian people and understood that we are a nation built upon the hard work of immigrants.
There were the Canadians abroad who explained the process to the terrified family and helped them get the ball rolling.
There was the social worker I met at our hotel who welcomed the Burmese immigrants into our country, met them at the airport and showed them how to get their free continental breakfast every morning. He checked in with them almost daily to help them make sure that all their T’s were crossed, and all their I’s were dotted. The one who helped them find jobs and English classes and showed them where to spend their clothing allowance.
There were so many more people along the way that enabled this family to flee certain death and come to live more safely than they ever had before. Just think of them all.
Now, I want you to think about just one of those people offering, instead of assistance in getting to safety, I want you to imagine they had offered thoughts and prayers instead.
You can hear that wide-open door slam shut, can’t you? You can picture those tiny little feet, all five sets next to those of their parents, trudging on back to the refugee camp or worse, back to their home to face a genocidal mob. I’d have never have met them. They’d have never have made it to Lethbridge. If just one of those people hadn’t done what they did to help save this family and offered to pray about it instead, they might even be dead right now.
In this instance, thoughts and prayers in place of real action could have resulted in a Muslim family dying. It would have resulted in a Rohingya family being forced to stay in a country where their people were systematically being picked off by the Buddhist majority. It would have meant these loving parents would live in worry every day that someone was going to kill their precious children.
Now, I don’t want you to get confused here. I could care less if the social worker went home each night after helping this family and prayed for them. I’m not concerned at all if the volunteers at the refugee camp kneel down to pray before they start each harrowing day. No, I take issue with thoughts and prayers being offered instead of action. If we all offered thoughts and prayers instead of action, this family could not be saved.
This religious family. Who I apparently hate because I don’t think we ought to accept thoughts and prayers in place of real help.
I want to suggest to you that it is those who defend the offering of thoughts and prayers over aid who hate religious people. Mainly, your choice to send magical wishes to the sky while this family faces a genocide. You could be voting for politicians who make it easier for refugees to find safety in your country. You could be collecting donations to send to refugee camps. You could be raising awareness about the genocide of the Rohingya people so that more people felt compelled to action over prayer. Instead, you sit alone and whisper to your divine genie, convincing yourself that what you’re doing is action when we are all fully aware it’s not. In the meantime, bullets whizz by the heads of Rohingya children. I can’t think of anything more hateful than that, without being the murderer yourself.
If you’re going to do nothing, don’t do a fancy sort of nothing to lull yourself into the belief you’ve done something.
It is thanks to secular morality and secular activism that this family has found a home in which to thrive. It is when we put our beliefs aside and see the human beings that we can genuinely offer aid. We can give gratitude to each person who acted instead of or in addition to prayer. We will never be able to thank, reasonably, someone who offered only thoughts and prayers.
It is thanks to people who understand the world needs more than thoughts and prayers that these Burmese people can lay to rest their mortal worry and get about the business of becoming Canadian. They will learn to relax and enjoy the privileges I’ve had my whole life. Your prayer didn’t give them choices for dinner. Your thoughts haven’t opened the free school doors for their children. One day, the family might enjoy a road trip through Three Valley Gap, just in time to catch the train, and it will never, ever be because of thoughts and prayers.
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