Down the street from my home in East Vancouver, a refuge is rising between a little white church and the SkyTrain tracks. Next spring, it will become home to up to 130 newly arrived refugees, as well as a service hub with facilities such as classrooms, a community kitchen and law clinic.
Vancouver's Welcome House – the first of its kind, according to the organization building it – is taking shape at an extraordinary moment. The Syrian refugee crisis – one of many – is staggering. And the apathetic masses have been moved, finally – in large part because of a shocking photograph of a dead child on a beach.
For Canada, this is an important could-be moment. What could become of the people who are able to settle here, and what could become of Canada as a result?
Seventy years ago, two sisters – through a series of lucky accidents and full-blown miracles – were freed after six years of persecution, starvation, slave labour, the loss of most of their loved ones and their own near-deaths. They were bony and weak, exhausted – but also exhilarated by their newfound freedom and its possibilities. Auschwitz was behind them.
While not officially refugees when they arrived (separately) in Canada in the years after the Second World War, my mother and her big sister had lived through horrific circumstances. They were the only two survivors in their immediate family.
These two women, both of whom also married Holocaust survivors, had five children, 14 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren (so far) between them. (My aunt is still alive.)
My aunt's husband tells an amazing story about his imprisonment in Siberia during the Second World War when he was near death: His father came to him in a dream and told him he would survive and have children, and they would have children, and so on. He cries every time he tells the story.
The last time I heard it was on his 100th birthday last year. At the little party held at his Toronto seniors' residence, I looked around the room and thought about all the contributions the descendants of these two sisters have made to Canada, with professions ranging from law to medicine to business. We can even claim an importer of premium tequila.
None of these people would have been doing these things in Canada had the country not welcomed my mother and aunt after their stint in hell-on-earth.
In Canada, refugees' fractured souls, repaired here, have extended into an immeasurable web of accomplishments.
Sorpong Peou escaped the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, went to university as a mature student in Canada and is now chair of the department of politics and public administration at Ryerson University in Toronto. Hodan Ali, a nurse practitioner from Somalia, co-founded a clinic for refugees in Hamilton. Their stories are among 30 chronicled in Flight and Freedom: Stories of Escape to Canada, to be published next week.
"We kind of have that picture of huddled masses when we think of refugees," co-author Dana Wagner told me. "We talk about the first few years when they cost us money; we forget to look five, 10 years ahead to what they're doing."
Michaelle Jean, from Haiti, became governor-general. Soma Ganesan, from Vietnam, is a psychiatrist whose titles include founder and director of the Vancouver General Hospital Cross-Cultural Clinic. How many Canadians have these two people alone helped?
Ron Rosell gets it. The grandson of Polish Jews who escaped pogroms before the Second World War, he was among those who jammed into Vancouver City Hall this week for a mayor's town hall about the Syrian refugee crisis. Mr. Rosell has sponsored – either officially or in a supporting role – four Syrians, now living in Vancouver.
A software developer, he figures he's spent about 20 per cent of his total net worth on his four refugees.
"I'm not a multimillionaire; I'm not someone for whom this was small change. This was significant for me, but those four people to me are like family," he told me. "I'm paying it forward."
Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson also attended a Welcome House media event this week, where he repeated his call to increase government-sponsored refugees to at least 20,000 by 2020. But the refugees themselves stole the show.
Malcom Atia had arrived the previous day. Ugandan, he was brutally beaten because he is gay. Mr. Atia, 20, wants to study theatre. Syrian refugee Majd Agha, here since 2014, has a job at a suburban Tommy Hilfiger store and is studying bioinformatics at Langara College in Vancouver. "I'm not going to be a parasite," said Mr. Agha, 22. He wants to work in a lab and talks about helping to find a cure for cancer – which took the life of a friend at 15.
It's a stretch, but if he does, it will be on Canada's watch. And it will be because he was offered a home here.
To dismiss refugees as merely a strain on the system is short-sighted – and wrong. Beyond the point that we should be practising compassion, there is the very real fact that immigrants, including refugees, make huge contributions.
Perhaps the most ludicrous argument against Canada bringing in more refugees: The crisis is too enormous; we can't sponsor millions – so what good can we really do?
Every life, of course, is worth saving. Every life brought to Canada has the potential to give this country so much more life.
Still think one person can't make a difference? Alan Kurdi is more than a symbol of our failure. He may have changed the fates of his fellow refugees.
But we'll never know what he, alive, could have done for Canada.