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granny files

There was a child-care shortfall at my son's house last week. Much as I love my grandchildren, the idea of cramming three unexpected days into my schedule was mind-numbing. Then, I remembered my own desperation for help when my children were small.

Besides, they'll all be in school next year and the intensity will evaporate from those drawn-out days of pushing swings in the park, dawdling while a child stomps in every puddle or inspects each leaf spiralling from dark overhead branches.

My short stint on the front lines reminded me of something volunteer Jo-Anne Page had told me. "I don't do empathy," Page, who is 74, said. "I am a hands-on person." She has five grandchildren – "beauties," she calls them. She knows how much time, work and money is needed to raise them, but "they have parents, they are all healthy, they never needed pencils or food to go to school." That's why she got involved in 2006 with the Grandmothers to Grandmothers project, supported by the Stephen Lewis Foundation.

Many of Page's counterparts in sub-Saharan Africa are raising orphaned grandchildren because the AIDS pandemic has devastated a generation of parents. Page listened to these "amazing women" telling their stories of "shock, loss and grief" and "their feelings of helplessness and stigma." What impressed her was the resilience and determination that was "shining through all the horrible things they were saying." They didn't want pity, or over-reaching beneficence telling them how to live their lives and raise their families; what they needed was financial support and solidarity in achieving the goals they had set for their grandchildren.

The struggle, which is compellingly told in Joanna Henry and Ilana Landsberg-Lewis's Powered by Love: A Grandmothers' Movement to End AIDS in Africa, isn't over. In the past decade, however, Page has seen overpowering anger redirected into "getting a voice" to "make demands for rights for themselves and their children in terms of pensions and health care." And she, too, has gained.

"On the selfish side, it makes me feel good," she admits. "It has made me much more aware of needs and strengths and how important it is to keep a positive attitude and remain strong. These women certainly taught me that."

Being needed is delicious and rewarding. It's also enervating, truth be told, but do you want to be bored and lethargic or worn out from making connections with others and learning something new? Exactly.

The capacity to multitask, juggle and make room for somebody else in your life are qualities that Page shares with Carlyn Moulton, an art dealer in Prince Edward County, a largely white, rural community in Eastern Ontario.

Moulton was the prime mover behind the effort to bring a war-ravaged Syrian family to Canada in 2015. But the Maleks aren't just any family.

There are 14 of them, counting parents, ailing grandmother and 11 children, ranging in age from a toddler to the eldest, 19-year-old Slieman – "like the beer," he learns to say with a shy smile. Before coming to Canada, the Maleks had fled Syria for Lebanon, where they spent four years "stuck in a holding box, stateless, not allowed to work, go to school, under curfew, tortured and denied health care and a lot of other things," Moulton says.

The family's first year in Canada has been documented by Michèle Hozer in Sponsorland, a heartwarming and often funny film about bridging cultures, made in conjunction with TVOntario.

"I am a feminist privileged white lesbian, non-religious woman," Moulton told me in explaining how her expectations of the life the Maleks should be living in PEC differed from theirs.

"I am paired with a very conservative religious Muslim man who honestly believes that the reason he had 11 children was so he shouldn't have to work."

And yet, despite the language and cultural barriers, they learn to accommodate and respect each other.

Moulton and her fellow volunteers got better at "respecting the rhythms" of the Maleks' lives, the family became acclimatized, gradually grew more independent and now have been joined by three other Syrian families, all of them relatives.

The process was "enriching, rewarding and exhausting," says Moulton, 62, who admits that her body "sometimes squeaks and wishes it was doing less." Her fatigue is easily assuaged when she watches the Malek kids connect on WhatsApp with their visibly starving cousins back home and can hear bombs dropping in the background.

"These kids are safe and they have an opportunity to make what they want of their lives," she says. "What they will make of it, who is to say. But we have given them the chance. And at its starkest, that's what this is about."

Independence is both a boon and a loss. Already, when I presume to accompany my just-turned-three-year-old grandson to the bathroom, he gives me a dismissive look and says, "I need privacy." That day will come for Moulton, too.

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