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Beyond Bootstraps

Newcomers to Canada bring more than what’s in their wallets.

When Nabil Saeed* arrived in Vancouver in late 2016, he came full of hope. Having fled his home in Syria in 2013, he spent three years in Turkey awaiting resettlement and was eager to begin rebuilding his life in a safe and stable country.

As he describes it, he neither wanted, needed, nor expected a red carpet upon arrival in Canada. What he most dreamed of was opportunity to make a life in a place where he could use his gifts and skills.

Three years later, however, despite his excellent English, experience serving other refugees through work with non-governmental organizations in Turkey, and a background in engineering, he has only been able to obtain employment in a supermarket bakery, working primarily overnight shifts.

What sinks Nabil’s hopes, though, is not necessarily the bakery itself. He is grateful for the work, though he does not intend it as a life-long career. What has been most difficult for him is what he has come to understand about the way he is viewed by the people with whom he interacts in Canada. With his employers, he feels he is just a cog in a machine. With others around him, he feels the only thing they want to know is if he has a job – and when he affirms that he does, they nod and make a comment about how it’s good for newcomers to be “productive members of society,” and ask nothing more.

Sitting in a coffee shop and apologizing (unnecessarily) for not being “more positive,” Nabil told me, “Sometimes I feel that Canadians are saying that we [refugees] have zero values, and so Canadians have to give them to us. But we both know that’s not true. And I also see that many of the values Canadians want to give to us are actually values created by companies – by capitalism.”

I sensed deep truth in his words but was unsure of how to respond, and asked him to expand. He looked at me frankly and said, “Here I feel like I’m not worth anything unless I’m making money.”

Nabil’s assessment of Canadian society is not an appealing one, but signs of its accuracy are everywhere – sometimes subtle, often not.

Even as we celebrate our welcome of refugees, the success stories we use to provide skeptics with evidence that our welcome is “worth it” centre predominantly on economic factors: how statistically, after a certain number of years in Canada refugees pay more in income taxes than they receive in public benefits and services; how many millions of dollars refugees are predicted to contribute to our economy in the next two decades; what different entrepreneurial activities various refugees have undertaken.

While none of these stories or statistics should be dismissed (especially in a political climate full of negative rhetoric about the detrimental effects of refugees and immigrants), it reveals that our definitions of human dignity and what it means for life to have meaning and value are increasingly skewed around employment and economic productivity.

And refugees are not the only ones who feel this skew. When I shared Nabil’s words with a friend who is a stay-at-home-mom, she wrote to say how much she identified with him. “It’s easy in our culture for success/happiness [to equal] what money can buy you, or a job. People aren’t ‘on purpose’ trying to actively devalue me, but it does feel divisive when [even] safe small talk usually begins/revolves around job related topics. And as soon as I say, ‘I’m a stay at home mommy,’ the conversation ends.”

The Bottom Line
The church, challenged to imagine a different kind of society, often cannot. James Dobson, who many North American Protestant parents have looked to for advice on parenting children into “godly people,” wrote in his July newsletter about the “threats of illegal immigration” to America. For Dobson, chief among these “threats” is the “lack of marketable skills” among those crossing America’s borders. Here in Canada, the first question I often receive from churchgoers regarding refugees relates to statistics on refugee employment – and too frequently, as in Nabil’s experience, this is the only thing they ask.

In their book An Other Kingdom: Departing the Consumer Culture, community builder Peter Block, professor and community activist John McKnight and Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann critique the current waters in which we swim, the effects of which Nabil feels so acutely. They call these waters the “Free Market Consumer Ideology” and they are clear on its insidiousness. “These are much more than a set of beliefs about an economy,” they write. “These consumer market concepts shape and commodify the social order. They define our culture. This narrative is the lens through which we raise our children, tell the news, create our livelihood, label who is in and out, distribute empire, and define how we live. It identifies what really matters in the end and establishes the nature of our social relationships. It is the final word – the bottom line, to use its own terminology.”

They point out that in such a society, we become objects. “Every human endeavour is monetized,” they argue, and “when we human beings are called laborer, wage earner, bread winner, it impacts our souls. . .. When a person’s effort [is] converted to wage earner, a person [becomes] an object. An object of cost and efficiency, an asset.”

Covenant Over Contract
In response to this objectification, commodification and de-valuing of inherent human worth, Block, McKnight and Brueggemann remind us of Covenant, which runs as a thread through the whole story of humanity’s relationship with the Triune God.

Instead of the contractual relationships that our society so often demands, which are transactional and “based on a specific exchange of interests,” the authors call us to consider how we might act with “imagination and neighbourliness” to engage in covenantal relationships with those around us. Covenants, they explain, are based on a vow and are “free of specifics, free of date and free of something in return . . . covenant is a different way of ordering social relationships. It leads to a more intimate, a more interdependent, way of being. Contracts are more based on agreements between autonomous individuals.”

In covenantal relationships, the inherent worth of each person is recognized, regardless of their economic output. Productivity is re-defined from quantifiable data (employment, income, taxes paid) to more nuanced qualitative characteristics (neighbourliness, imaginative hope, Christ-like love). A refugee who arrives in Canada with a disability and is dependent on disability assistance is as valuable to Canadian society as one who starts a financially successful business, and both are celebrated.

The call to order our lives around covenantal relationships is not an easy one, but neither is it new. For centuries, Christians have challenged varying societal norms around things such as abortion, euthanasia and eugenics from exactly this foundation: that every human life is a life made in the Image of God.

This is the call of the “Other Kingdom,” a kingdom in which the last shall be first, where wealth and power are not markers of success and where every person is a human being with a name and a face and a story, beloved by God. This is a kingdom in which everyone has something important to offer. This is a kingdom which seeks continued prayer, reflection and action on what the Gospel means in all areas of life. And for Nabil, other refugees, stay-at-home-moms, and people everywhere, this kingdom is good news indeed.

*Name changed to protect privacy.


  • Dena Nicolai is a student in the Master of Christian Studies Program at Regent College in Vancouver. She lived and worked in Egypt for four years between 2006 and 2011.

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