WELCOME TO CANADA
The Mercedes SUV, with the family in the back two rows, drove sedately, while its passengers waved energetically, and mouthed what Brenda assumed was ‘Shukran gazilan’ or perhaps ‘shukraan lak fi suria’, the two Syrian expressions for ‘thank you’ that she had learned just for today. The sidewalks along the two blocks leading to city hall were packed with people, all out to welcome the town’s first refugees. It was a family of six–parents, one teenager, a ten year old and two babies. Refugees from Syria after two years in a camp in Jordan, they had arrived in Canada eight weeks earlier, had been processed and were now certified refugees, coming to their sponsor church group in Penticton, British Columbia.
The Mayor had decreed that the Christmas lights, just emplaced all about the street corner of city hall last year, should be lit. As they would be whenever an honoured personage visited the Okanagan Valley city. So, lights shining, people smiling, food vendors in place, the street was set for action.
Brenda stood with other women’s auxiliary members at the corner of Main and Ellis, a block from city hall. Their chairperson, Margaret Heffner, had got herself invited to the Mayor’s dais, part of the official welcoming committee. The auxiliary was the pivotal fund-raiser for the church which was the sponsor of the Syrian family. Brenda was chair of the fund-raising committee, but Margaret always looked presentable, knew how to speak on an out-door mike without getting ‘feedback’, and remembered who to say thank-you to. A perfect quasi-politician, Brenda thought to herself. Then mentally berated her lack of Christian feelings. There was only room for a few on the dais. And apparently at the luncheon which would follow.
As she stood with her group, Brenda began to feel dizzy. Perhaps from standing still, she told herself. She moved. But her feet hurt. She had worn her best dress, coat and shoes, and the shoes were pinching, as best shoes will.
“Do you need to sit, Brenda?” Sonia, a regular at the auxiliary, looked around. “We could ask these people to make room on the bench?” A hesitant question, so not really likely.
“No, I am fine, Sonia. Thanks. It’s just I skipped breakfast. Margaret wanted those donation envelopes folded, so I came early.”
As the Mercedes drove past them, the woman in the car looked straight at Brenda, and smiled, because Brenda looked exactly as she had imagined elderly Canadian women to look– neat, clean, wrinkly but smiling a welcome. She hoped she might meet that lady, one day, and extend a personal thanks. Perhaps even in English, by then.
Dignitaries spoke, including Margaret, of course. The Syrian man spoke, using some hesitant English, then turning to his translator, a young Immigration Canada employee. The twice-delivered words were cheered enthusiastically. Then two official cars –one the now refilled SUV and one with the Mayor—moved down the street.
Running beside the cars were teenagers from the church youth group, shaking their contribution boxes, urging the crowd to donate, all for the refugee family and its resettlement needs. A pimply youth grabbed at Brenda’s elbow.
“Come on, Lady. Welcome our new Canadians,” he shouted into her face.
“Come on. How much can it hurt?”
Brenda reached into her purse. She knew she had a two-dollar coin, a Toonie. She had been keeping it for a coffee and a muffin at Tim Hortons—they had a special on. She deposited the coin into the collection box, and the kid moved on, without a thank you. Brenda felt herself shake.
A hand gripped her elbow, and she heard Sonia say, as though from a distance. “Brenda. You don’t look well. I’m going to get you home. The excitement here—such as it was,” she said rather disgustedly, “Is all over. As we are not invited to the luncheon, we might as well leave.”
With Brenda’s assurances that she was fine, Sonia left her at her apartment building’s door. Brenda struggled with the heavy street door. She got to the elevator, read the ‘Out of Service’ note, and moved towards the stairs. That is when she knew she was in trouble. Her vision doubled, she trembled when she reached for the rail, and she was sweating. On a cold day.
“If I still know that, I am okay,” Brenda reasoned with herself, and half-smiled, half-grimaced, as she made her way up the stairs. “It was stupid to skip breakfast,” she told herself.
She had taken her usual dosage of insulin that morning. But then had missed breakfast. There were no eggs, and no milk for oatmeal. Probably no oatmeal, either, she thought. So, no breakfast. But the insulin had already started to lower her blood sugar, as it was designed to do. Without food, specifically carbohydrates, the decrease would not stop. She could drop into a diabetic coma. Then she remembered: that was why she had needed the toonie, to buy a muffin. Her last two dollars until the 27th, when the pension cheques arrived.
Brenda got into her apartment. She remembered she had some sandwich wafer cookies, served only to guests because she did not—as a diabetic—eat such things. But a cookie, even as stale as it must be, would be an immediate antidote to an insulin low. She moved—wobbled really—into her kitchen, opened an upper cupboard door and reached. The reaching did it. She pitched forward, collapsing against the cabinet and onto the floor. She was found, two days later.
The following figures were downloaded from Canadian government web sites, November 2018.
Brenda was a Canada Pension and Old Age Pension recipient, receiving $1,328.79 per month. Her rent of $850.00, her utilities of $300.00 on average, her medications of $85.00 meant she had less than $105.00 a month for food and other necessities. Her meager savings were long gone.
A refugee in Canada immediately receives a minimum of $2,470.00 per month. Other assistance is provided as required, including medical coverage, ESL courses, etc.