MULTICULTURALISM: While Surrey may be recognized for celebrating its diversity in ‘grandiose’ ways, without personal connections to neighbours from different walks of life, it’s ‘so easy to fear each other’
FINAL IN A SERIES: In Surrey, 40 per cent of residents are immigrants. With this series, we look at the challenges they face as they struggle to build a new life here.
Us and them. Can that really change?
With a large and continuously increasing immigrant population in Surrey, it’s an undeniable challenge to connect people from the various places of origin and religion that call this city home.
“I don’t think it’s a destination. It’s a journey,” mused Minister Will Sparks with Northwood United Church as he took part in Surrey’s first Interfaith Pilgrimage. The event was put together to honour victims of terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut and to foster understanding between people of different backgrounds.
For Sparks, that journey began after 9/11.
“I wanted to reach out to my Muslim neighbours because I knew that they were vilified based on extremist actions. Much like today. I realized that I didn’t have any relationships,” he said. “That was the impetus to say this is not OK. It’s not OK to not know your neighbours, it’s not OK to not cultivate relationships with neighbours and people of different faiths. That’s what kind of kicked me into high gear.”
According to the minister, it’s important to make those connections.
“It’s so easy to fear each other. We can’t be doing that.”
When a community is connected, they can come together in times of pain and crisis, said Sparks.
“You have the relationships to rely on and you can make a call. You can say, ‘How are you doing?’ to your Muslim neighbour,” he said. “There’s a lot of things going on out there. A lot of suspicion, a lot of fear, a lot of reaction. What can we do to put other messages into the mix that are more loving, less fearful? For us, that’s where this is coming from.”
Surinder Jabal, president of the Brookside Gurdwara that participated in the event, praised the Surrey Interfaith Council for organizing the walk.
“It’s for peace,” Jabal noted as he helped put out tea and snacks for those participating in the march. “It’s good to know each other. If you don’t know what activities are all about, then we live in fear. It’s better to have an understanding.”
Timothy Favelle of Port Moody brought his children, four-year-old Nathan and two-year-old Mercedes, to the event to explore a variety of religions all at one.
“We’re First Nation spiritual, sort of, but we’re Mennonites,” he said outside the Newton gurdwara.
“This is a great way to break down walls and division in people,” Favelle said of the event.
A true melting pot of cultures, the march was pulled together in a matter of days. People of many faiths and backgrounds turned out, from Atheists and Mennonites to Sikhs and Bahá’ís.
The roughly 20-kilometre trek began at Northwood United Church in Fleetwood, then stopped by Brookside Gurdwara and Singh Sabha Gurdwara, ending with the “pilgrims” participating in a Friday prayer at the Surrey Jamia Masjid mosque close to the Surrey-Delta border.
The women put on headdresses before entering the mosque on the second floor. They take in the prayer from the above, separate from the men, who enter on the main floor.
There were looks of confusion in both of the rooms as the men and women entered. Even throughout the prayer, there were glances out of the corners of eyes, some more obvious than others.
But after learning who the “pilgrims” were and what they were doing that day, that curiosity turned into welcoming for many.
Hugs were shared by strangers and many hands were held.
The Muslim community expressed gratitude to the organizers of the event and to those who participated.
“We are so appreciative,” B.C. Muslim Association president Daud Ismail told the crowd. “People who are committing these cold-blooded crimes, they are cowards. In the name of humanity, I think we should all come together.”
While Friday’s event was unarguably an example of acceptance and cultural integration, can that be said about the other 364 days of the year?
Some say no.
STOP SEGREGATING, ADVOCATE SAYS
Ken Herar, founder of Cycling4Diversity, says more needs to be done to connect people of different cultures in Surrey and other multicultural cities.
The issue of isolation between cultures is something Herar hears a lot about from residents through his job as a columnist for Abbotsford News.
“Abbotsford and Surrey are very similar, with large Indo-Canadian populations,” he said, “and I was hearing about it a lot. I decided I want to do something. What can I do more than just being a columnist? I wanted to do something on a larger scale.”
So in 2011, Cycling4Diversity was born. The group bikes to schools to encourage people to make friends and connect with people outside of their ethnic communities.
The first bike ride for diversity took place from Mission to Victoria and it’s happened every year since, visiting almost 100 schools over that time.
During their stops, Herar, along with eight other cyclists, spread a message of acceptance and celebrating diversity.
“We share examples of diversity and the struggles we still face. And we do it as a team. We have police officers, teachers, just normal people,” he explained. “We share examples of what we need to do. For example when we visited the Khalsa School in Surrey earlier this year, I told them, ‘When you leave these walls and you’re in your communities and neighbourhoods make sure you connect with people outside your community.’
“If you’re brown, go make friends with someone who is Caucasian or Asian.”
Growing up as a kid in the ’80s, Ken Herar recalls playing hockey with people of all colour.
Today, he looks at sports groups directed at specific ethnic communities and wonders why there is such segregation.
“That is not the way we should be doing it,” he said. “When I played hockey, we represented our town. We didn’t have small leagues where we had ethnic groups.”
Herar said events that focus on integration between ethnic communities are great, but that embracing other cultures needs to happen more often, not just at events like the Interfaith Pilgrimage and Surrey’s award-winning Fusion Festival.
“We’re not seeing change. I think it’s here to stay, actually, so we just have to be aware of it and just keep building awareness,” said Herar.
“We’re not saying people should give up their culture or traditions, but let’s talk to our neighbours.”
PRACTISING DIVERSITY WITHIN WALLS
Asked if ethnic communities are integrated enough in Surrey, Herar said, “We’re not. I think we can do a lot better yet.
“When we’re more integrated with each other, I think the differences that divide us that cause racism, you see less of that and people are more accepting of each other,” he mused. “When a community is more integrated people are not saying, ‘Those people,’ or, ‘That’s how they do it.’ I hear a lot of that.”
According to Herar, we’re “practicing diversity within walls” right now.
“Meaning when we go to festivals or functions, we do it there, and by the time we leave, everything is back to normal again. We need to break those walls down…. Diversity should be practised everyday.”
He said misunderstanding other cultures can lead to frustration and racism.
“People phone me and say, ‘Ken, these types of people don’t hold the door open for people.’ So we have a lot of different issues all the time. I think we can do a lot better,” Herar said.
Even within cultures, struggles are present.
“South Asians are also upset to a certain degree that newer immigrants should be doing a lot more in terms of integration,” he explained. “So it’s not a white and a brown thing, it’s also struggles within the community that we see.”
Where does the solution lie? For Herar, it all begins with friendship.
“Go for supper, make friends outside your culture, invite people from outside your ethnic community to your home,” he urged. “The feedback I get is this is not happening.”
He said he rarely sees youth from different cultures walking down the street together.
“I’m not saying it never happens, but we should be seeing it more,” said Herar. “For how big our community is, I should see a lot more of it. Hopefully people can change.”
David Dalley with the Surrey Interfaith Council was one of the organizers of last week’s pilgrimage. He, too, believes a connected and understanding community can be achieved through friendship.
“It’s that simple,” he said, smiling.
Make a friend outside of your ethnic or religious community, he urged. “Sometimes we can get carried away with big grandiose ideas, whether it’s big events or big shows. Those are all important but I really think it just comes down to friendship on a one-to-one level.”
They both urge people to forget the “us and them” mentality.
Interestingly, Dalley said the word “refugee” is now bothering him and it’s because that mentality is now seemingly connected to it.
“It used to be a word that evoked empathy and a connection and a desire to help and give a hand. And now it seems like the connotation has switched and it feels like there’s a negative cloaking around it. It struck me, how weird that the word refugee is bothering me. Can’t we just use the word human?” he asked.
“There are some humans coming. And they’re hurting.”