by John Hoffman
Like many other Canadians, I have become part of a support group for a family of refugees from Syria. I came a little late to this party. I started out doing volunteer driving for various folks last summer. But recently one of the support groups here in Peterborough lost a couple of members to relocation and my wife and I were asked if we could step in.
It’s only been about a month, but already I can’t get over how much this experience has meant to me. I assumed it would be interesting and satisfying to support a newcomer family. I like helping people out and I like meeting new and interesting folks from other cultures. But the thing that has really hit me right in the heart is how much I’m enjoying being around young children again. This family has five kids aged three to 11 and they are just enchanting and fun to be with.
I’ve always liked little kids. When I was a young, my siblings and I got a big bang out of playing with our younger cousins when they were toddlers and preschoolers. Later, as a camp counsellor, I really learned there was a uniquely deep kind of happiness and good feeling that comes with connecting with, caring for and playing with young kids who look up to you and depend on you. It was not quite like any other good feelings I’d had. I experienced it again as a father of young children.
Obviously, parenting is not always fun. It can be a drag at times, as you undoubtedly know. The hard parts of parenting could suck the energy right out of me sometimes. But the good parts– the fun games, the little moments of connection, the times my kids really needed me and I could see that I was able to give them what they really needed – gave me lots of positive energy. It also boosted my self-esteem.
My boys are grown now, so little kids haven’t been a regular part of my life for quite some time. That why I feel lucky to be getting to know a Syrian family with lots of young kids.
Earlier today, for example, after driving the dad and two of the girls to a dental appointment, I was invited to stay for some tea. (My first impression of Syrians is that they are extremely hospitable, generous and kind!) That meant some games of cards with the kids. And the game they like to play with me is Uno, a card game I remember playing at people’s cottages when I was a teenager. Playing Uno was how I broke the ice with these kids (their idea, not mine) the first time we met. It’s become a “thing” with us. Every time the kids see me, one of them is sure to smile and say. “John?” “Uno?”
How can I resist that? So we play. I have always tried to make games fun for young kids rather than competitive. That might be because of my painful memories of being a very competitive sore loser as a boy. So the kids and I have fun playing up the dramatics of Uno. If I have to pick up four, or six or eight cards (the idea of Uno is to get rid of your cards!), I pretend to be horrified. But the kids know I’m kidding. They think it’s funny. So they starting dramatizing too. I let the little ones who are too young to play on their own, help me pick which card to play.
Today when I was playing with the kids, the parents were watching and laughing along with us, all this, even though they speak very little English and I have, like, two words of Arabic. I was having fun, of course. But, boy, it did my heart so much good to see this family, who have likely been through some tough stuff I will never know about or experience, feeling relaxed and happy together in my presence. In spite of the challenges the parents have faced and will continue to face they were feeling safe. And I can tell that their children feel safe with me.
And frankly, I don’t think there is any greater honour I could receive that to know a child feels safe and happy in my presence. Because safety – and by that I mean not just safety from harm, but a deep down kind of safety that is felt in the body – is the foundation of mental health and happiness. I’m so happy that this family (and others) can find that safety here in Canada after it was taken from them in their home country.
But for myself, the pay off is that I feel like a Dad again. Not that I ever stopped feeling like a father. But my new Syrian friends have helped me feel some of those nice, happy “dad of young kids”feelings again. And there aren’t many feelings better than that.