Ever since the Paris attacks, I’ve been compelled to say something to my four year old about the violence, destruction and general disregard for human life looming in my peripheral consciousness. I hesitate however as I am in no way trained professionally in the world of child psychology, except in the way that she schools me simply by living with her every day. And so, I was patient in writing this and in talking to her, so that when I was ready to reference terrorism, refugee status, fleeing, and the homelessness of calling a sidewalk home, I’d be able to do it in a way that could be digested by her in a convenient bite-sized format she could understand.
Of course it’s both unreasonable and unfair to place the entire burden of the crisis on her shoulders. Her world is one of gummy multivitamins, the colours purple and silver, timbits and stickers, and her only struggle in life is of finding a matching pair of socks, or waking the baby from singing Drake’s Hotline Bling too loudly.
She lives in a privileged world where comfort is her norm. I would never expect her to recognize the words terrorist, ISIS or the like, but if I’ve learned anything recently it’s that the kid can surprise me. Appropriately after last week’s ‘Fuckin’ Sparkles’ post, I heard her calling her friend a ‘fuckin’ butthead.’ And if the girl can learn and sing all the words to Justin Bieber’s ‘Sorry’ in just three days, and then ask me why it is ‘the Biebs’ feels sad, then I think I can assume she’s taking in something from the news about the refugees and that it’s worth addressing and helping her understand it in the best way I can.
It’s not dissimilar to my approach in taking her to Remembrance Day services, as many do with young children. Of course she didn’t grasp or begin to understand the hell the veterans endured to deserve those flashy medals on their lapels, or the sadness their families experienced when left behind, but I thought it was important, nonetheless, to take her to the service to expose her to the curiosities she wanted to explore more of afterwards with me, which turned out to be the music and the uniforms. At the service she may not have had much understanding, but she was more respectful that hour than she’d been that month, and I believe that to be because she sensed and felt the mood.
So I started there, with feelings. My kid understands feelings. In fact, she specializes in that shit. She feels them larger, stronger and harder than I do. They are raw, honest and powerful in strength. So I was keeping feelings in mind when we were spinning our globe around yesterday and I stopped her little finger on Syria.
“Cereal?!” she repeated with a laugh, and I smiled and corrected her. Small, unassuming, purple coloured Syria would be our chosen country of the day to learn about.
Usually the routine would be to hop onto the ol’ Google machine and type in the country’s name and traditional dance, and we would attempt our own dance – which pretty much means hoping around the room and giggling at our lack of choreography. But yesterday we switched up the routine.
I asked Wren what it was to feel safe, because safety is a feeling she is lucky enough to experience and understand on a daily basis.
She answered, “It’s when you’re up on the monkey bars and if you’re feeling scared, someone is there to help you down.”
She told me when she is safe, she feels happy. When she thinks of home, she thinks of her house. And when I told her some families in Syria don’t feel those feelings or have a safe home to go to right now, she told me the kids in Cereal must be sad and cold. I said she was right, and that the people there were looking for safety, like the veterans at the Remembrance Day service were too.
And then we put the globe away, and she went back to colouring her picture with her scented markers.
I look forward to our globe routine every week. It’s something we both learn from, and with it, I hope to widen her understanding of the world as I’m expanding mine. I believe she ought to contribute to household discussions and debates, as much as she is able and comfortable to, aside from those stemming from Daniel Tiger. Otherwise, growing up in a homogenous white rural landscape, she runs the risk of losing out on the global perspective.
I myself grew up in a very small rural white town, but with a unique plot twist in that every weekday from infancy through junior high, my “Guggy,” a black woman in her 60s, was the woman to raise me. She kept our household running, cleaned and tidied, while watching me when my dad worked through the day.
This gave me a unique perspective on the town that I was raised in. Because unlike in her hometown which neighboured ours and was host to most of the black community of Pictou County, her dark chestnut skin was cause for second glances and furrowed brows, as she held my hand in hers and we walked down the street. Her “other’ness” meant I always felt eyes on us, and as a child, I remember wondering if it was because of her beautiful bright floral blouses, or because of my beloved tye-dyed rompers.
I found it strange, as I matured, that the looks continued, because for me, her presense was my security. Her strong, dark, weathered hand in mine was my warmth and my confidence. But when she and I got on a bus or in a cab together, there was a mood change. And that feeling is one I can remember to this day.
In my town where she spent all her backbreaking years scrubbing floors and raising the privileged children of others, she was still very much treated as an outcast and so we often made our way back to New Glasgow to be with her extended family where she felt at home. There, I experienced gospel music, learned what a big family really looks like, and gained my very best friend, Gug’s neice, whom I treasure to this day. I participated in many of New Glasgow’s fundraising concerts at their community centre, made sandwiches for church events and funerals, and learned what it meant to be an active member of the community.
Gug’s background and mine were different for sure, but her strength through the hard times was my takeaway as a kid. She was not a refugee, but she was often treated as an outsider in my hometown, and the racism she experienced as a contributing member of our community was at first confusing to me, then troublesome, and finally, infuriating. I hadn’t needed an official ‘acceptance and racism shpiel’ from my parents. I had had the opportunity to experience it first hand.
Gug’s experience, as I said, is not the Syrian experience. But I began, by being at her side, to understand how it would feel to be feared just for being different. Fear makes us act dumb, and prevents us from educating ourselves on the full picture.
I would urge you to probe those with fearful remarks about the screening process for refugees, to see if they know anything about it. Many have been masking their xenophobia as being anti-immigration, but know very little of the actual process. Understanding it better myself, I have trust that the families admitted will be perfectly acceptable neighbours to raise my kids alongside.
When Wren is fearful of a given situation, I’ve encouraged her to seek help. So it makes sense she referenced the playground as a space in which to feel safety. Perhaps those who are fearful of Syrian refugees could stand a trip there to regain a toddler’s sense of the world.
At the playground, children can be found, in a similar fashion to adult political debates, shouting, arguing, complaining and whining. But there are the victories at the playground, too. Every day, if you look for the compassionate adult, a child can be found safely navigating a world where they can learn to share with others, to stretch their bodies to reach new heights, and to take heart-pounding risks.There was, along some step of the way, a guiding hand in that process.
Now I am a Doula, not a political analyst, so take my words as you may. But the correlation between raising families and raising allies just doesn’t seem all that different to me. Building trust with someone isn’t always convenient. Sometimes it will feel one-sided. Sometimes, we might wish, as we do in this independence-seeking society we live in, that the person on the other end ought to power through and problem solve on their very own.
But that won’t build trust. It won’t erase fears. It won’t encourage confidence or a future generation of empathetic or compassionate helpers.
When my children are truly vulunerable and afraid, they call for me. I never regret reaching out my hands. Showing my kids an excess of compassion on a given day never keeps me up at night. It’s tricky, this child-rearing business, but when I let my instincts guide me, I often find that making the choice to get up off my ass and help out was worth my while.
So together, I am hoping to help Wren see that just as adulthood and childhood has its differences, so too are there similarites- we are all in a constant state of learning. And so, just as there is much that’s different between the Syrian reality and our Canadian one, there is oh so much the same. It is all just very dependent on your perspective.
Though their world is dark right now, while ours twinkles with Christmas lights and cheer, I am anxious to soon hear reports of a Syrian-Nova Scotian child getting swept away by the magic of the first snowfall, or trying skating for the first time on an open lake. I’m betting their four year old still wants to snuggle at night, just like mine does, or learn to write their name. I’ll bet their baby wants to try new foods, like mine does, or laugh just because their sister is laughing. And I’ll bet their parents want all those same things.
While Syrian refugees may not be craving a freshly poured double double just yet, they are craving a fresh start. And I know their outlook could help my child gain a needed perspective.
The featured image for this post is credited to Magnus Wennman, a Swedish news photographer attempting to humanize the nearly 4 million refugees who have fled the war in Syria by photographing powerful images of the children and telling their individual stories. In his photo series “Where the Children Sleep,” Wennman captures haunting shots of children during their harrowed journeys of escape. No matter your politics, these stories and photos will move you to the core.