Edmonton Living Rooms: The Gatherings

Throughout 2017, the Edmonton Heritage Council and Multicultural Health Brokers Co-Op is embarking on a project to explore Edmonton’s diversity through universal themes of humanity. Edmonton Living Rooms brings together natural leaders and animators from seven communities to share their stories. Project lead Azkaa Rahman reflects on her experiences after a month of gatherings.

Seven vibrant communities, five powerful themes of life. Throughout April, Edmonton’s Natural Leaders, Community Animators, fellow families and friends came together for a multi-generational harvest from seniors, adults and children. They all worked tirelessly to complete more than forty gatherings of life experience, intense emotion, and all round wonder-full expression.

These gatherings have been a grand sensory experience, one of expansion and contraction, with questions storming after every interaction. The weight of responsibility felt by the trust of another’s story often feels daunting and immeasurable; what does one do with this trust? Many questions have surfaced along this portion of the Edmonton Living Rooms journey.

Hosting one gathering after another, I felt like I was floating on a rainbow array of light and shadow. There was a subtlety of facial expressions, complemented by the power of raining tears and gregarious laughter. Celebration and grief, opposites of life, flowed through in a harmonious dance.

Waiting for an informal small gathering with the Kurdish community on a Sunday evening in April, I see incoming large pots of stew, regal dishes, and beautiful clothing. What I expected to be a small intimate gathering at a satellite office ended up feeling like a lovely wedding going late into the night. This community did not meet without a well-prepared feast! How heart-wrenching and humbling it was to listen to many of the men and women speak to the cultural genocide they once experienced. Each and every one of them felt a deep connection to Canada’s First Nations, feeling an eagerness to serve from a place of profound empathy and compassion.

Later, as I stepped into a room with the Sierra Leone community, women and children drumming the song of welcome greeted me. Despite their severe trials and tribulations, they remain grounded pillars of unshakable hope.

The South Sudanese Living Room was unforgettable. I felt like I was in a night café half way across the world, with a television screen flashing, tea being served, phone conversations and laughter in the background. Every single person in the room had a deep reverence for their parents and ancestors, for the wisdom of the Elders and a love of nature, dance and play.

I would meet the Iraqi community regularly at a north-side Tim Hortons. Every gathering, I would sit in the corner, sharing life experiences with two widows. They would charmingly giggle with shades of sobriety, narrating the juxtaposition of life under agonizing tyranny, while painting the most beautiful homeland full of luscious nature, vibrant community life, and individual serenity.

I was awestruck by the immense humility and gratitude of the Bhutanese community. Every gathering was imbued with a strong ethic of hard work, perseverance and hope. Despite the excruciating events from their history, every person spoke with great reflection and honour. Individuals embodied a desire to serve and contribute to make their society a stronger, healthier, vibrant place to be.  Optimism is the blood of this community. I often wondered, what nourished this undying hope?

Amidst the growing cloud of complexity in these stories swells the foremost tension: how has Canada awakened to the evolving picture of its people? As we rush to open our doors and welcome, shelter and protect, how have we honoured and served the very people with whom Treaties were signed? How are we serving the truth, reconciliation and robust growth of both the Indigenous and the new comer, for both contain reservoirs of deep hurt, pain, beautiful spirit, and hope. What are our priorities, and how are we going to be held accountable? 

I frequently contemplate the path that begins with the perception of difference. How does it evolve into empathy and ultimately compassion? The doorway to Edmonton Living Rooms may provide a glimmer.