A tale of how to open one’s arms to refugees

When Alberta’s huge wildfire forced 80,000 to flee, one nearby town did not let fear of strangers hinder their compassion for the refugees. It is a lesson for a world dealing with mass migration.

Evacuees from the Fort McMurray wildfires use a hockey rink full of beds as they sleep and rest at the "Bold Center" in Lac la Biche, Alberta, Canada, May 5.

The world is in an age of extreme human mobility. A quarter billion people have either fled disasters of various sorts or migrated to escape poverty. If they were all in one place, it would be the fifth largest country. Most are in the Middle East or Africa. But if any place currently represents an extreme influx of migrants, it might be Lac La Biche, a town of fewer than 3,000 people in Canada’s province of Alberta.

In early May, after a massive wildfire in nearby Fort McMurray forced 80,000 people to quickly escape, Lac La Biche ended up hosting an estimated 8,000-12,000 of the evacuees. Its population, in other words, nearly tripled almost overnight. With only about 1,000 residences, the town’s people might have panicked. The evacuees, after all, were strangers, and fearful ones, too. To paraphrase Bertold Brecht, they were “harbingers of bad news.”

It might have been easy for Lac La Biche to simply shut its doors. To use a biblical image, the town could have said it did not have enough loaves and fishes to feed this crushing crowd.

Yet it didn’t. Led by Mayor Omer Moghrabi, whose family immigrated from Lebanon, Lac La Biche set up welcoming centers. Its few stores stayed open to supply basic needs. The locals offered to pay the bills of the new arrivals. To provide enough places to sleep, people offered their campers. The response was so strong that a sign was put outside the main evacuation center saying no more volunteers were needed.

The town’s reception of the fire refugees, which was similar to other places in Alberta during one of Canada’s worst disasters, is not another feel-good story about Canadian generosity. It is a model for a world dealing with a refugee crisis not seen since World War II.

Many countries, such as Turkey, are in refugee fatigue. Kenya just announced it is no longer willing to host 600,000 refugees living in the country. Politics in Europe and United States have lately centered on how to better close borders to those fleeing war and persecution.

Migrants can sometimes bring up fear in a community, perhaps not out of what they might do but what they represent: a world in turmoil or the fragility of human existence. The way to conquer such fears is with compassion, or a recognition of a universal right to security and of the bonds of humanity. Love, in other words.

On a global scale, Lac La Biche’s tale is a small one. But in relative numbers and in its outpouring of kindness, it is world-class.

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