Over the holidays, I was seated beside a lovely fellow at a get together. Out of nowhere, he said he didn’t understand why Muslim women had to wear head coverings now that they were living in Canada. “They should dress more like us,” he said. Then, to my alarm, he added, “We won’t be able to tell if they are terrorists.” Whoa! I wasn’t expecting that.
I challenged him politely, suggesting I thought everybody should be able to choose the way they dressed. Maybe I was too polite, though, because he then asked me if I agreed with him. I fumbled. I didn’t want to offend someone I’d known for a long time and would likely see again, but I strongly disagreed, and told him so. The conversation was unsettling.
I frequently interact with Muslim women wearing traditional garb in my day-to-day life. They may be students at the university who pet Jelly during her visits, or professional women, or moms shopping with their children at the grocery store. I’ve never worried that they were terrorists because of the way they were dressed. Why would I? We’re all more similar than different.
Thank goodness my unsettling experience was followed by a quick counterexample. Thank goodness I volunteered at Canadian Blood Services on New Year’s Day. For weeks now, the volunteers had been reminded that a large group of recent Syrian immigrants would be donating blood that day for the first time in Canada.
When I arrived, the clinic was hopping. I’ve never seen it so busy. Syrians filled every donor bed. Giving blood is ingrained in the Syrian culture because of all the political unrest: when they were back home, they never knew when a sister or child or friend might need blood, so they gave just in case. They may have donated blood regularly in Syria, but they were out of practice since their arrival here.
The Syrian group was accompanied by a bevy of interpreters to ensure they understood the process. There was genuine warm camaraderie amongst the (mostly) men. It was a social outing for them, a time to hang out with friends. I couldn’t understand their language, but it looked like some donors were being chided by the others for being nervous. Each donor had the company of a friend or two to chat with while he gave. We volunteers were to provide refreshments to these donors after they’d finished donating.
I am pleased to report I didn’t spot one terrorist among the group. These were warm, friendly fellows who seemed happy to be there that day and grateful for the chance to socialize with fellow Syrians. Whatever stresses they’d surely endured since arriving in Canada seemed irrelevant for that short time. They were simply enjoying the company of compatriots.
I wasn’t the greatest volunteer that day. I was too busy tearing up. I was astounded by the generosity of this group of newcomers. It was quite a sight to see such a crowd making an effort to give back to the country that had welcomed them. Know that I’ll gladly take your blood if I need it, Syrians. I, for one, thank you for donating.