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Illustration by Marley Allen-Ash

Abdullah’s younger daughter raced across the parking lot to jump into the warm arms of the father she had spoken with, but never met. There was light snow in Mississauga that morning when Abdullah met his family for the first time in almost a decade. My family and four others helped Abdullah, his wife Hafiza, and his two daughters, reunite in Toronto through Canada’s private sponsorship program. I’ve been working on migration issues for much of my career, but this experience brought global policy issues much closer to home, literally.

Abdullah had arrived in Toronto six weeks earlier and was staying at our house for the short term. He was understandably anxious waiting for his family to cross the border from Afghanistan into Pakistan, for documents to be approved and tickets to be booked. His family is Hazara, an ethnic minority in Afghanistan who have experienced targeted violence by the Taliban. Fleeing the country and leaving his pregnant wife and baby behind was an act of survival. He never thought they’d be separated for so long.

In January, over 300 Afghans arrived on a chartered flight from Islamabad and were being released, family by family, to their sponsorship groups. Finally, it was our turn to witness this most intimate of overdue reunions. Even the federal immigration worker who escorted Hafiza and the girls out of the building gave me a huge hug. The joy was real. A few hours later, the entire family was cocooned in our basement, where they emerged several times over the weekend for long walks in the frigid air to explore their new neighbourhood.

Later that first evening my mom told me about when she was four and witnessed a similar reunion. It was 1948 when her cousins arrived in New York after a few years in a displaced persons camp. That reunion, when she watched her own family run across a different parking lot, is imprinted on my mother’s memory, a reminder of the fleetingness of safety, the spectre of the Holocaust.

Displacement is in my DNA. I am one knot in a web of Jews who have recognized that our history and present require us to step up for the forcibly displaced, as so many have stepped up for us. Like my mother, I don’t think my kids will ever forget the reunion they witnessed the first night when Abdullah got to eat with his family for the first time in almost 10 years at our kitchen table.

Some call sponsors heroic. Doing so erroneously ascribes to us a unique quality of generosity. We do this work because somebody did it for our families in the past. Someone might have to do it again for us in the future. We do it because it’s part of our collective survival. We help when we can, we receive when we must.

For me, sponsorship has been more than karmic reciprocity. It’s been a few tough years for many, including my family. The world has not felt like a warm place for a long time. At least not until I saw Abdullah’s youngest clutch the banister of the school stairs. We had just registered the girls for school and she was crying because she didn’t want to wait until Monday to return. It was her first time in a school in two years. I loved watching Abdullah sit on the floor of his brand-new apartment with his daughters to figure out the puzzle where you have to keep the balls from going into little holes. I laughed with Hafiza at our app’s attempt to translate “the router arrived” from Dari to “the mystics are in the house” in English. Witnessing this family get to know one another again brought warmth to these bleak winter days.

Abdullah arrived in early December, shortly before the first night of Hanukkah. Normally I wouldn’t think twice about lighting candles in front of any guest, Muslim or otherwise. But there’s a lot of hate out there now and I admit I felt a certain trepidation. We didn’t know each other yet. We invited Abdullah to join us for potato latkes that second evening and after we lit the menorah he asked, “You do this for eight nights?” “Yes,” I said. “In my culture, we do it for 10.” So much hatred, for the difference of two candles.

I write amidst a backdrop of atrocities on the other side of the world. It’s hard to discuss this relationship between Jewish and Muslim families without acknowledging that Israelis are slaughtering Palestinians in Gaza by the thousands, displacing families by the millions or the horrific attacks on Israel on Oct. 7, 2023. We live amidst a time of fierce division and hatred. We are taught that the “other” is dangerous. And yet, opening our home to strangers was not a risk, but rather, a way to reconnect and find meaning. Opening our home has been a reminder that the differences between us often are as wide as three generations between parking lot reunions, or as slender as eight candles versus 10.

Natasha Freidus lives in Toronto.

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