The start of the journey that would lead me to Sandra began in the summer of 2013 when a close friend of mine inspired me to see things through a different lens forcing me to reflect at how I could make a difference. My desire to connect with people and my passion for giving back was reignited.
Over the following months, I returned to the Umoja Operation Compassion Society (a non-profit organization that helps refugees integrate into Canadian society) to volunteer as an after-school tutor for the children. As the holiday season was approaching, I told my husband that in lieu of exchanging gifts I wanted to sponsor some local refugee families by providing them with basic necessities and gifts for their children. As I shared details of the project with friends, I was overwhelmed by the response of how of them many wanted to also participate. With the support of these generous friends, we were able to sponsor five newcomer families. My friends would drop off packages daily and my living room slowly started to resemble a makeshift Santa’s Workshop.
We were given “wish lists” for each family and I noticed that there weren’t very many items on one of the family’s list. I asked Umoja if they could connect with the family to get more details about what else they wanted and/or needed. Umoja’s Outreach Worker, Sonia, came back to me saying that the woman’s only wish for Christmas was to find her mother who she had been separated from for many years in the Congo. My mind instantly flashed back to eight years prior, when I first heard about the brutal war in the Congo on the Oprah Winfrey episode which I shared in my “Where do I Start?” blog. Was this going to be my opportunity to connect with a Congolese woman who needed support? But my heart also sank, as I had to reconcile that I could not make this woman’s only holiday wish come true. I still enthusiastically shopped for her and her two young sons. But in the back of my mind, I felt that my efforts were somewhat fruitless knowing that all this woman wanted was to find her mother.
Our family filled two cars with gifts and we ventured off to make the deliveries to the families. As important as it was for me to try to make these families holiday season less burdensome, it was equally important for me to have my daughters experience this and to start instilling the importance of giving back in their every day. The girls eagerly carried the gifts to each family and we were welcomed into each of their homes with love and gratitude. My heart was full of joy. I knew we had done the right thing to forego buying each other gifts and that this would be the beginning of a new family tradition.
Our last stop was to meet the 29 year old single mother named Sandra from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Sandra had recently arrived to Canada with her two young sons, Moses (4) & Alex (2) after living in a refugee camp in Namibia for four years. We met Sandra at the Umoja Centre and drove together to her home. She greeted me with a tentative smile and during our drive I racked my brain as to what I could possible talk to this woman about that would be relevant, sensitive and culturally acceptable. I broke the silence by giving her a gift card from a colleague of mine and I explained that Chris was not able to come in person but that she wanted to lend her support. Sandra graciously accepted the card and said something in reference to ‘God blessing her’. I thought I heard her say that she hoped God would bless her, so I responded by saying “I hope so”. Sandra looked at me and with great conviction said:
Do not say you hope so, you need to know so. When I was in the refugee camp and not eating for four days, I didn’t pray to God to ask him why I was hungry, I prayed to God to thank him for everything he had given to me”.
Her words resonated with me and truly made me realize how much I had to learn about the plight of others. I tentatively asked her about her family. She recounted how when she was fleeing the Congo with one of her brothers and how someone tore him from her arms never to be seen again. I could not hold back my tears. I apologized to her stating that I couldn’t begin to imagine how difficult it must be for her. She explained that while she can talk about it, it is far too difficult for her to think about.
A few moments later, we arrived at her townhouse complex where she picked up her sons from the neighbor. Her oldest, Moses, came running over with the most infectious smile and he gave me the warmest hug. My heart melted instantly. Little Alex was more reserved and kept his distance. We brought in all of the gifts while my girls and the boys just naturally started to play with one another.
As the visit was coming to a close, Ciela told me that she wanted to ask her friends at her next birthday party to bring gifts for Moses & Alex and that she didn’t know why she was so lucky to have new friends like Moses and Alex. These are the moments that touch your heart and make you realize that this is the humanity that we have a duty to nurture within our children.
As we were preparing to leave, Sandra presented a wooden carving to me that she said her father who had died in the conflict had made for her. She said she wanted me to have it and it was in this moment that I knew I could not walk away from Sandra. I wanted her to be part of my life and I would do whatever I could to support her.
This is how our journey started…..Sandra’s and my journey of friendship, hope and making the impossible possible
In my next blog, “A Needle in a Haystack” I will share how our mission impossible began….
Thanks for this amazing story Michelle – I would love to reconnect with you. I am home visiting my Dad at the moment.
You have done a very special act of selflessness.