Her name is Semira*, and the cleaning services she offered were a Mother’s Day gift to me from my parents. I watched as the 50-year-old woman scrubbed my floors on all fours. I asked her how long she had been in Canada. She answered me with a thick Slavic accent. I began to do the math and asked if she had emigrated during the Bosnian War. “Yes,” she replied. My curiosity piqued, I asked if she would share what happened to her.
She straightened her back and dropped the cloth into the bucket of hot soapy water. “It’s simple,” she said calmly. “One day there was a knock at the door. When my husband opened the door, there was a man pointing a gun at his face. He said that our house was now his house and we had 10 minutes to gather our belongings and leave, otherwise he was going to kill us.” I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end as a lump formed in my throat. My face became hot as my mind quickly played judge and jury to the man who had done this to the woman kneeling before me.
As I opened my mouth to share my uninformed opinion with her, she continued. “I am a Muslim. The man who did this to us was Christian.” I stared at Semira as a wave of shame washed over me. In that moment everything that had been black and white turned a horrible shade of grey. Semira fetched her cloth from the pail and continued washing my floor. The irony didn’t escape me. There I stood, watching a Muslim scrub the dirt off the floors of a Christian. I tried to put myself in her place. Could I wash the floors of a person who subscribed to the same religion as the person who was responsible for forcing me out of the only home I’d ever known to flee to an unknown country, culture, and language?
Several years later, I would come to realize that those questions planted a seed of compassion that I had never felt before for people who were different from me. Let me explain. The world as I had experienced it up until that point consisted mostly of first-generation Canadians whose parents had emigrated from The Netherlands 50 years earlier. We went to the same churches, attended the same schools, and camped at the same family campgrounds during summer holidays.
My time with Semira was the beginning of a journey for me, of seeking a new awareness of the kaleidoscope of peoples, languages, cultures, and customs in my own city. I was moving from a place of safe familiarity to a place of the vast unknown. I prayed that God would open my eyes to go beyond the ignorance that I had fallen back on so easily and for so long. After all, God created the young girls behind the burkas, the men who wore turbans, the women with a bindi on their foreheads. He died and rose again for them as well as for me. I realized that my city was full of newcomers from foreign countries who were worshiping foreign gods—and suddenly my heart was tender for them all.
God used Semira to break my heart. The cleft it left behind has made room for more people and more stories, as well as a deep love for the foreigners who now call me their sister and my community their home.
*Name has been changed.