Anika Barlow, hospitality coordinator at Vancouver’s Kinbrace Refugee Community Society, spoke with Peter Stockland of Convivium about the power of faith to bring new arrivals and hosts alike closer to encountering God.
Convivium: What is Kinbrace, and how did you become involved with its work?
Anika Barlow: Kinbrace is a community of welcome for refugee claimants, providing housing and wrap-around support. We’ve been in East Vancouver for 20 years, building a place of belonging for people fleeing violence or persecution in their home country. We’re like a first option for housing for newcomer families when they arrive in Canada.
I live on-site alongside families as they’re waiting to have their refugee claims heard at the Immigration and Refugee Board downtown. We’re implicated in the daily lives of refugee claimants as they’re in the upheaval of just having left their home country and waiting for a decision to be made on whether they can stay.We end up having people from all around the world. We offer six units of housing for refugee claimants, and then three units for the host community, which tends to be Canadians like myself. We help about 50 refugee claimants with transitional housing each year, and thousands more with education and orientation to Canada’s refugee determination system.
Convivium: And you’re the hospitality coordinator. What does a hospitality coordinator do?
Anika Barlow: My role is an ever-changing one. I’ve been here for about a year and I started helping with the transition times. When a new family arrived, I would prepare their apartment and help get them adjusted to life here. But a lot of my role is really just being a neighbour to people, spending time with them and their kids, hearing bits and pieces of their stories as they are willing to share. And then I work a bit with resource development and event planning and, and other bits and pieces in the life of a non-profit.
C: Do people come to Kinbrace from a variety of countries? Are there particular countries that are most common?
AB: There tend to be waves that follow the political climate in the world. In the past, we had many Persian folks living here. In the last year, when I first arrived, it was Iraqi-Kurds. And there’s always a few people from Latin America, Honduras or Colombia. There have been a lot of Afghans and a couple of families from Saudi Arabia. It really depends. It can be a mix of all kinds of places.
C: Is Kinbrace an overtly faith-based organization?
I hope the hospitality we offer as a refugee claimant housing provider is not just the stuff of clean sheets and community dinners, but a safe space to encounter God: to strengthen a trusting dependence on the one who is ultimately “Other.”
AB: It kind of walks the line, I’d say. Kinbrace was launched in 1998 out of the vision of Grandview Calvary Baptist Church, which happens to be just down the street. Their vision was to respond to the needs in the neighbourhood by starting multiple community houses. Over the years, we’ve maintained strong ties to Grandview.
Our core values – welcome, trust, mutual transformation, celebration, and prayer – are also deeply rooted in the Christian story. There are complexities working in a multifaith context, but I’ve found prayer to be a practice that unites us as a staff and enables us to pursue mutual relationships with those who are displaced, knowing that we’re all sojourners held by grace. It gives me the ability to relate to many of the families who arrive at Kinbrace whether they’re Muslim or Christian or otherwise.
C: How much is the refugee claimant process itself a challenge to sustaining faith? Or is it a source for sustaining faith?
AB: I can think of specific interactions I’ve had with people when they’ve been in a pretty dark place of heightened anxiety and uncertainty about what the future will hold: when their hearing date will be, if they’ll have a positive decision, and if not, then what? There have been conversations I’ve had with people that have led us either into prayer together or at least into a conversation about prayer.
I asked a Muslim woman once, “Do you pray at times like this?” And she said, “Yes, of course.” So, we talked about what prayer means for us – for me as a Christian and for her as a Muslim. And she asked me to pray for her. Those interactions are not at all uncommon
C: It sounds like there’s opportunity for faith to flourish
AB: That’s true. But I’ve also heard people say their time at Kinbrace was extremely difficult, and it’s hard for them to even return here, too. You have to keep in mind what people are facing when they’re here with us. Even if there’s surface calm, just under the surface there’s often a lot of fear, anxiety and despair. And there are different cultural ways of either showing or masking that.
C: From a Christian perspective, I wonder if it doesn’t make us more aware of what it really means to carry the cross?
AB: Yes. Definitely. It makes me think of one of the neighbours here. She’s from the Middle East, and, because of circumstances back home, she ended up forfeiting her refugee claim and returning. It was pretty unheard of. That doesn’t happen too often.But she’s a Christian and while she was here, I invited her to come to church with me. At first, she was quite secretive about her faith. But she came to church with me one day, and that led to her coming from time to time. We went together to a prayer meeting and she heard there there was going be a baptism service that weekend. And, and she leaned over to me and said, “I’ve never been baptized. Can I be baptized?”
We arranged for her to talk with the pastors that week and on the Sunday, she was in the ocean getting baptized. She had said about going to church, “I haven’t done this in 10 years. It’s not safe back home.” So, for her to be able to make a public profession of faith in an outdoor park was pretty incredible. It was certainly an encounter that I know changed me and changed the way I see my faith.
C: Do most of the refugees come as families? Do you have facilities or ability to house children as well?
AB: We do. About half of our residents tend to be children. We prioritize those who are most vulnerable so we often end up with families with young children or single moms. We’ve had a lot of “Kinbrace babies” – babies born here, many to single mothers. Recently, we had a family with four kids. There are four smaller units, which are typically just for two people. But we’ve had families in there as well when there’s just a lot of need.
C: Do the families of faith show concern to make sure the children get religious instruction and, time for prayer and religious practice etc.? Or are they so absorbed in simply the bumping around of refugee claimant life that faith goes off a little bit to the side until they can get settled?
AB: Among some Muslim families, their integration into Canada involves going away from attending mosque and all of that. But then other families really dive into the Muslim community here in Vancouver, and they find a mosque to attend.
The individual I know best was about 15 when she arrived in Canada. And she really embraced her faith here. She attended private school in Vancouver but has somehow found a way to continue her prayers, and has really made a point of getting involved in the Muslim community. I think she’s even started a group for young people at her mosque.
One of the Latin America families has really become involved in the Latino church community here.
C: What’s the key message you’d like other Canadians to grasp about Kinbrace and its role around refugees, whether families or individuals?
AB: It’s a really interesting space that we live in here. We just blend into this ordinary neighbourhood in East Vancouver. But we have people from all over the world, which ends up being this multi-faceted community. Something profound happens here, as we live together – people of different passports and faith professions. Perhaps our value of prayer, which is a core piece of the Kinbrace identity, in some way helps open a space for people who are in a fog of uncertainty, anxious about lives they’ve left and what their new lives may become.
It seems to me refugee claimants live a kind of bi-polar existence, balancing great expectations of “Canada” – opportunity, prosperity, hope – with the despair of all that’s been lost – home, family, identity. I wonder about the impact of what we do in these ordinary houses in the middle of an ordinary block.
Our openness to prayer – as an articulated value and a lived practice – might be an overture towards each other and towards God. Together we question the response of suspicion to strangers, together we seek trust despite our differences, together we embrace vulnerability as sojourners; together, we seek community, belonging, home.
Living at Kinbrace, I recognize God as the ultimate stranger who has revealed himself as infant son, as brother . . . as family. As a community, we refuse to allow our differences to drive a wedge of suspicion between us. We will not be held captive by fear. Rather, we draw near to strangers, as the Stranger has drawn near to us. In doing so, I believe we live this great mystery: that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit knits us together as kin.
C: The process of encountering people as neighbours from a place of faith, regardless of their faith, strikes me as a wonderful inspiration for renewal of a Canadian society at large.
AB: Yes. It could be that. I think it could be.
Convivium means living together; it is published by Cardus, a leading think tank and registered charity. Cardus exists to renew North American social architecture and supports the work of Convivium as it seeks to articulate and protect a place for faithful citizens.
This interview is re-posted by permission.