Chapter 2: Trust
Esther arrived with autumn. She had been travelling on a business trip in the United States when she was faced with an impossible decision: return to her Central American country of origin — and certain persecution — or seek safety by crossing the border into Canada. This would mean enduring an indefinite separation from her husband and two children. The choice that led Esther to our doors was motivated by survival, which was evident in the way she arrived — carrying just one small suitcase. On a warm September afternoon, I watched Esther walk through the back gate and set down her bag. Then, she straightened up and took in her new surroundings with all her senses but one; Esther was visually impaired — she had been blind since birth.
During her first week at Kinbrace, Esther asked me if I would take her shopping for clothes. I agreed, though I had never guided someone with visual impairment before. As we boarded the number twenty bus and made our way downtown to the mall, I was a haphazard combination of overly cautious and nearly negligent. At times, Esther would practically drag me along, laughing, and other times, I would forget to warn her when the sidewalk abruptly ended. But we got through it, and once we had successfully found her some new clothes, we celebrated with hot drinks.
As we sat outside the mall at a little patio table in the sun, I looked at Esther, her hands cupping her coffee, and I marveled at her trust. She had come to Canada seeking protection, but she had to assess the safety of her new environment without the aid of her eyes. Though she was unable to read facial expressions and body language, she openly received the welcome of new neighbours and Kinbrace staff. She was both incredibly vulnerable and remarkably trusting. She had accepted the offer of my outstretched arm, entrusting her very self to me — a stranger. Her trust, freely given, invited my own, and in the weeks that followed, Esther became the neighbour I would go to for guidance… for the outstretched arm of a friend.
Because of Esther’s situation, her application for refugee protection in Canada was expedited, and one year later she was reunited with her husband and children. Shortly after she moved from the Kinbrace community and into a nearby suburb, I asked Esther what the word “neighbour” meant to her. “There are two kinds of neighbours,” she told me over a voice message. “There are next door neighbours, and there are friendship neighbours. That’s what we are.”
We are a community
Trust is where community begins. It grows when an offering of vulnerability is received with grace. It forms the bonds between us that make relationships possible. In the context of Kinbrace, these relationships are not just between hosts like me and residents like Esther. Daily, we witness trust being forged between residents — next door neighbours from countries and cultures as diverse as Ethiopia and Guatemala or Iran and Algeria. A single mother entrusts her child to a neighbour when she has to go to a legal appointment downtown. A late-night conversation crackles like fire in the backyard as four men from four different countries carry on like brothers. Once, when a Colombian resident was asked where she would go if she could go anywhere in the world, she responded, without hesitation, “Iraq.” Her only reference for the country was the incredible hospitality she’d received from her Iraqi neighbours up and down the hallway. Trust is the way in. Through trust, we uncover the possibility of our belonging to one another, and we discover — in all our diversity — our unequivocal kinship.
Trust affirms dignity. For most of us, however, suspicion comes much more naturally. I still remember having that old adage drilled into me when I was an elementary school student: “Never trust a stranger!” Although I now live in community with strangers, I know it is still much easier for me to approach a new resident with reservation rather than open-hearted trust. I have some serious unlearning to do.
The apprehension in our hearts breeds suspicion in our systems, and nowhere is this more on display than in the mechanisms of border control and migration management: razor-wire fences, concrete walls, and rigorous security screening with armed guards — all to protect us from them. Suspicion on an individual scale becomes systematized.
Meanwhile, for many forced migrants, suspicion may be a matter of survival. Because of desperate circumstances, people on the move can have their trust abused and become prey to exploitation. Vulnerability is compounded in an already delicate existence. For some of our neighbours, the journey to Kinbrace has involved victimization by rental housing scams, smuggling, and even human trafficking. Once refugee claimants arrive at our doors, it is not uncommon for them to feel hesitant about accepting a free offer of transitional housing. As one family described, “It’s very difficult to trust unknown people in a new country, because you don’t know their language, their culture, their habits. As Muslims, we had never lived with non-Muslims… We didn’t think Canadians would help us, but they not only helped us with material things, they took away our loneliness.”
Building trust begins in this fragile place where our vulnerabilities meet — making eye contact, offering a smile, sharing a name, initiating an awkward first attempt at conversation. For those forced to flee their homes, as well as those in the position of offering new ones, these first wavering extensions of trust affirm our shared humanity. Over time, trust that has eroded can slowly be rebuilt. The value of trust invites us to begin unlearning suspicion at the level of the human heart.
We commit to the best in one another
A refugee claimant is, first and foremost, a human being. “Refugee claimant” is a legal label our neighbours bear, often reluctantly, for a short time. It is an interim identity between fleeing danger and finding refuge. I have heard many neighbours tell me that becoming a refugee was their last resort. It is a desperate and courageous leap for safety, dignity, and belonging. We honour those who are forcibly displaced when we bear this in mind. By choosing trust from our very first encounter, we commit to the best in one another.
By choosing trust from our very first encounter, we commit to the best in one another.
For someone like Esther, the journey to safety and belonging in a new country is complex and arduous. After arrival in Canada, the process involves navigating layers of bureaucracy, often in a second language, all while grieving the loss of family, friends, and country, and carrying major uncertainty about the future. The process culminates in a hearing room of Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB). There, someone like Esther presents her personal story, along with evidence of persecution, to a decision-making member of the IRB.⁵ If the decision is positive, the pathway to Permanent Residency (PR) and eventual citizenship opens. If the decision is negative, chances for protection in Canada narrow dramatically.
All along this pathway to protection in Canada, refugee claimants must tell and re-tell traumatizing aspects of their stories, both in the legal preparations for the refugee hearing and when trying to access services and support. This means that someone like Esther is forced to relive, time and again, the very persecution she is trying to escape.
Within this context, practicing the value of trust means taking a completely different approach to our relationships with newcomers. When a person seeking refugee protection applies to live at Kinbrace, rather than asking detailed questions about their story, we request only the most basic information that will assist us in welcoming them. We begin as complete strangers to one another. If personal stories emerge, they emerge over time as friendship grows. Trust leads us to cultivate a spacious hospitality, where the questions we ask centre on our shared humanity rather than on the traumatic aspects of someone’s recent refugee journey. In this way, we can begin to create a home together — or, as one South American resident described it, “a safe harbour in a storm.”
Think of an experience when you were treated with unwarranted suspicion. How did that feel, and how did you respond?
Who is someone you trust deeply? What allows you to offer them your trust?
Perhaps you have not felt what it is like to be called a “refugee,” but have you ever had to wear a label because of a life circumstance?
⁵ To learn more about the intricacies of the refugee determination system, visit www.refugeeclaim.ca