Yann Martel is known to many as the author of Life of Pi – an international best seller that became an Oscar winning movie. His most recent novel is The High Mountains of Portugal.
But at MCC Saskatchewan, Martel is also known as the man who welcomed a Syrian family of six into the home he owns in Saskatoon. The family arrived in 2016, and Martel wrote about the experience for the London Sunday Times. Here is an excerpt from that story. MCC is thankful to Martel for the use of his house, and for allowing us to share this story with others.
How it feels to give a house away
By Yann Martel
What do you do with a sweet little house when you don’t need it anymore? I bought a house in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, when my partner and I didn’t have any children yet. I say I bought it; it would be more accurate to say that every reader who acquired a copy of Life of Pi bought it. It’s a clapboard house built in 1912. The rooms aren’t big, there’s only a single bathroom, the walls have only newspaper for insulation, in every part of the house you hear what’s happening in every other part—but it has a nice feel to it. It’s cozy. Too cozy when the children started coming—we have four—and my partner and I both work at home. So we upgraded to a bigger house. But what to do with the old place?
To give is to receive. When we gift something to someone, whether a smile or a kind word or a service or an object, we create good will, we create bonds.
The obvious thing to do was to sell it. But it was the first place I’d ever owned, and we’d put a lot of work into fixing it up. I’d stripped and painted all the doors in colourful patterns and touched up other details in the house. We’d tended the garden and the vegetable patch. It was where we first welcomed into the world three of our children. I was still attached to it.
I considered renting it out. But did I really want to become a landlord? In October of 2015, a third option presented itself. It was splashed all over the papers every day: refugees. To give is to receive. When we gift something to someone, whether a smile or a kind word or a service or an object, we create good will, we create bonds. Surely that was a worthwhile investment.
Then a friend suggested I try calling Mennonite Central Committee. In Canada, refugees can be brought over by the government but they can also be privately sponsored. Mennonite Central Committee provides support to community groups and churches of any denomination that take on this kind of refugee sponsorship, where everything a refugee family needs for a year, from shelter to food to help filling out forms to finding training, schools and jobs, everything, is taken care of. Let me briefly sing a song of praise about the Mennonites.
I’ve never encountered a group that so walks in what I imagine is the spirit of Christ: a spirit of loving-kindness, where help is given without judgement.
The Mennonites are not a large group, but they’ve made their mark here in the Canadian Prairies. Up until that fateful phone call to Mennonite Central Committee, they were just a name to me. Then I called them and they became real. I’ve never encountered a group that so walks in what I imagine is the spirit of Christ: a spirit of loving-kindness, where help is given without judgement. The Mennonites cottoned on immediately to what I was offering. Sure, said Dana, the young woman I first spoke to, that sounds wonderful. Where’s the house? Can we see it today?
MCC made it happen. Within days everything fell into place. A group from Wildwood Mennonite Church was bringing in furniture, setting up bedrooms, stocking the kitchen, doing everything so that a family might live in their new home.
Then the waiting game started. At first the house was supposed to welcome a family from Myanmar. The family had been living in a refugee camp in Thailand for over a decade: a mother and five children, the father abducted and disappeared. But the little boy contracted acute bronchitis and that caused a delay. Months went by, the house remained empty. Finally we had to move on. Another group, from Mount Royal Mennonite Church, and another refugee family. There too we had to wait.
Then they finally arrived, from Aleppo, Syria. Omar and Ramia and their four children, nine, eight and three years, and their adorable baby girl, age seven months. They didn’t speak a word of English. Whenever we went to their house big smiles and vigorous nods had to say it all.
So that, for me, is what you do with a sweet little house you don’t need anymore. You turn it into a safe house for children and a grateful family, a place for future citizens
They are very friendly. Just last week I had to drop by because there was some flooding in the basement. It seemed there was something wrong with the sump pump. In rapid order the plumber and I were offered cups of sweet tea, pastries Ramia had baked, and then—lo!—pizza she made from scratch while we were there. Meanwhile, Omar helpfully mopped away the water off the floor and the children broke into the ABC song at every chance they had.
The children are at the vanguard of integration, gleefully taking in every aspect of their new Canadian lives, eager for school to start again, eager to speak English. Omar and Ramia, the parents, do their best, but it must be a difficult adjustment, this new country whose language they don’t speak and ways they don’t know. But they’ll get there, as will, I hope, the thousands of other Syrian refugees who came to Canada.
So that, for me, is what you do with a sweet little house you don’t need anymore. You turn it into a safe house for children and a grateful family, a place for future citizens, a home where you can knock on the door at any time of day and be greeted with smiles, open arms and, likely, good pizza.