Just recently, I found myself at a small company located in a commercial-industrial zone of Montreal that sits under the flight path of Pierre Elliot Trudeau Airport. One of those ugly, boxy single story brown brick buildings with flat roofs that cause nothing but trouble in our snowy climate and all look the same from the outside.
I was there to evaluate a group of men for French classes.
It’s always fascinating to find out what goes on inside these places.
The company makes molded plywood seating products. A dozen men came to see me, each in turn. They work as machine operators. Most were close to the end of their shift and covered in a fine powder that looked like sawdust.
They divided up pretty evenly into three groups: Filipinos, Armenians and Sri Lankans. This often happens. Through networks that most of us know nothing about, new arrivals to the city—people who have no contacts and who have very little money—are funneled to companies like this one. Maybe it’s better to say that they follow trails left by compatriots and transmitted by word of mouth.
Many were brought by a supervisor to the door of the conference room where I sat waiting. I could feel their unease. This wasn’t their environment.
One of the first people I saw was an older Armenian man. He, too, was covered in dust and flecks. It was in his hair, in his mustache and stuck to his skin. He was a big, fleshy man but not, I think, a big strong man. He had a large, round face and sloping shoulders. And sad eyes.
He spoke no French at all, and barely any English. Just enough to tell me that he had been here for three months and that he had a wife and an eight-year-old son, which surprised me and caused me to recalculate this man’s age; he looked too old to have a child so young.
He also told me that four weeks into his new life here, there was a fire in the building he was living in, and he and his family lost everything, including all of their papers, I.D, his old drivers’ license …everything. Everything. And I thought: is it possible to start lower than from scratch?
Then I learned that he had come from Syria, fleeing Aleppo. I marveled that he has made it this far, and wondered at what cost. He seemed so weary. I thought of his heart beating in his chest and wondered if it’s strong enough.
Not all living creatures are migratory. I’m not. I grew up just a short distance from where I now live. In the same town. At this moment, my three sons and their loved ones are all close by. But that has not always been so, and could change again.
This is the way the world works and has always worked. Our migratory patterns are determined by opportunity, history, necessity and urgency. For some, there’s also a sense of adventure.
Three days ago, Anna, a former student of mine who’s now simply a friend, sent me a link to a piece by Helen MacDonald in the New York Times titled «The Human Flock». It’s a stunning, poetic piece.
Anna introduced it with the words: «Cranes flying south for winter evoke the people seeking refuge below. »
The starting point of MacDonald’s essay is the annual southern migration of Eurasian cranes from Russia and Northern Europe through the Hortobagy region of northeastern Hungary, which she has witnessed and which attracts hundreds of tourists; an experience which mirrors the murmurations of English starlings as winter approaches, and the mass migrations of Canada geese over much of the autumn skies of Quebec.
MacDonald is fascinated by the movements of flocking birds and her depictions of these are exquisite. So, too, are her descriptions of the human emotions this phenomenon evokes: wonder, joy and fascination, certainly, but also something at times overwhelming and fearful.
And it’s in those darker feelings that she makes a true connection between the avian and human worlds, saying: «No starling wants to be on the edge of the flock, or among the first to land. »
There is apprehension on both sides.
And of course, the reader immediately sees the parallels with the Syrian migrants on Hungarian soil, facing a cold and angry welcome and gripped by a fear of fearful people.
MacDonald ends her piece by saying that the moment individual beaks and wings and tail feathers become distinguishable among the flocks, the dizzying, rushing patterns of the migrating birds begin to dissolve. Nothing seems as chaotic or confused.
There is a beautiful symmetry in my friend Anna’s thoughtfulness: a former student of French drawing my attention to the plight of potential future students.
Anna and the cranes have reminded me how important it is to bring as many human migrants as I can into the centre of the flock—to safety.