The generosity, compassion, and kindness of the 500 people who stuff the Cascades Casino ballroom for tea Sunday afternoon truly overwhelmed one of the event organizer, as well as a few other women in attendance – including a recent immigrant from Germany and three Karen refugees.
Looking out over the sea of guests, Velma MacAllister, put her Langley Christmas Bureau co-coordinator hat on (or in this case her fastener and veil) and thanked the sold-out crowd for attending and giving so generously at the seventh annual Thank You for Caring A Christmas Tea – which benefits the bureau.
“This is sharing and caring at its best,” MacAllister said, speaking not only of the outpouring of donations received that day, but also to an authentic and heartfelt sense of compassion apparent on every faces as she scanned the room.
“Oh, what a wonderful feeling it is to be a part of something so great,” she said, commenting as a relative newcomer to Langley about the bureau and the community.
“Don and I have moved to many cities and towns over the years in B.C. (job-related transfers). We have not found a more generous, caring, supportive, friendly place to live than the Langleys,” she shared.
MacAllister wasn’t the only one affected by Sunday’s tea, an event started by the mayors’ wives – at that time Debbie Froese and Charlene Fassbender.
Claudia Lingkost, for example was moved almost to tears in seeing the benevolence and goodwill of so many people packed in one room.
She moved from Germany 15 months ago, seeking a safe and friendly place for her and her husband, Matthias, to raise their teenage daughter.
Born and raised near Frankfurt, Lingkost dreamed of living in a place where people could be safe, people are kind, and crime and politics didn’t rule everyone’s lives.
She’s found such a place. It’s Canada. A place where their 14-year-old daughter, Larissa, can prosper, Lingkost told the Langley Advance.
Sunday’s “amazing” event helped solidify this point for her.
“The situation in Germany changed a lot in the last few years and our daughter was no longer safe,” she said.
“We wish for our daughter a safe foundation for her future. And I think the people here are much more friendly than in Germany. We are always welcome… It’s such a huge, huge difference to Germany,” she said, repeating again that almost every person she’s met since arriving has been “nice.”
Lingkost is a member of the Langley Central Rotary Club, and described that as another organization that seeks to doing for others – especially those in need.
“I can’t understand why here people live in peace together, the different cultures, and in Germany it’s not possible,” she said.
“I knew, in the world, there must be a place where people are friendly with each other, and respect each other,” Lingkost said. But all her life, her own mother insisted there was not.
“Then, I found this place,” she said, looking around the room of 500 who have all come together to give to others.
“We don’t want to go back,” Lingkost said. “We’ll do everything we can to stay in Canada. It’s me. It’s friendly here. This is what I missed in Germany. It’s amazing here. The people, they are amazing here.”
The Shar family agrees.
They came to Canada 10 years ago and their mother and two of the older daughters spoke at Sunday’s charity tea, thanking each guest for their contributions to the Christmas bureau and explaining how that made such a difference in their lives.
The Shar family initially lived in a remote village in Burma (formerly known as Myanmar). The Karen people are an ethnic group, many of whom were forced to flee to Thailand when war broke out in that the region.
The Shar family lived in a refugee camp for 14 years until 2007, when they joined a group of some 4,000 Karen refugees that were brought to Canada and scattered across the country.
Of those refugees, about 350 Karen people now call Langley home, said Sharon Kavanagh, a settlement worker and friend who introduced the Shar family at the tea.
“The Christmas Bureau was a group who really stepped up to help and love the Karen people,” Kavanagh added.
Their story demonstrated how the generosity demonstrated by those at the mayors’ wives’ Christmas tea, as well as other bureau fundraisers, makes a positive impact on “real families,” she said.
Everything was new, unknown, and terrifying for the Shar family when they arrived, explained the matriarch of the family, Nwel.
They couldn’t speak the language. They couldn’t write. They had no idea how to operate a debit card or much else in the way of technology, nor did they have any understanding of the country’s customs and processes.
“There was so much to learn,” Newl said, admitting it was frequently overwhelming in the early years.
But she spoke of the kindness and generosity of complete strangers who literally taught them how to live in Canada. And she talked of sweet people who gave them assistance, food, and gifts that brought smiles to their children’s faces.
“As a parent, it makes me very happy to see my children so happy…” said a grateful mother who turned the microphone over to her oldest daughter Shakowah.
Shakowah is now 19 and hopes to begin studies soon at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.
She was a shy, nine-year-old girl when they first moved to Canada and settled in Langley.
While she remembers the initial glee at the first snowfall and the delight at receiving gifts from strangers, she said that first Christmas symbolized so much more for their family.
“We have never had a Christmas like the ones in Canada,” she said, admitting she’s still shocked today at how people in Canada “really care about them.”
“We have never felt such peace and our memory of that first Christmas season was very special,” she said, appreciative for so much more than just the presents but the “loving” volunteers who entered their lives.
Kate is a 17-year-old Langley Secondary student who doesn’t have many clear memories of when her family first arrived in Canada.
She’s able to recall rather vividly a turkey dinner and some toys, but most of all she recalls feeling safe and loved.
“We come from a country where rich people treat poor people very badly. Wealthy people don’t care about people who are struggling. So, it was so very strange to have so many people around us who cared for us, help us, and even came to visit us and eat with us. That would be unheard of where we come from,” Kate explained.
Admittedly, like her parents, she had no idea where the Christmas gifts and gift cards for food were coming from. Looking back, she chuckles a bit now remembering her parents belief that they must have come from the government.
“They had no concept of the process and what was involved in organizations like the Christmas bureau,” she said of her parents. “They could also not comprehend that total strangers, like all of you people in this room, generously gave of their time and money to help families like ours.”
But today, her parents describe Canadians: “They are kind, generous, and have really good hearts,” Kate shared.
“We’ve been given this amazing opportunity to start our lives over in a new country. It’s taken a lot of time, a lot of love, patience and kindness from our new community. But, we are independent, healthy, contributing members of our society – so thankful to be a part of the fabric of Langley.”
She concluded to a standing ovation: “Now that we do understand the generosity of total strangers, on behalf of my family and all the Karen families in Langley, we want to take this opportunity to thank you all for the work that you do, the contributions of time and money that you make, and the love that you have for families in need – it really does make a difference.”
UPDATE: Figures of how much was raised at this year’s tea will not be available until Friday, said coordinator Jean Schaffer. But she’s confident it will surpass last year’s total of $38,000.
“We’re definitely going to exceed that,” she told the Langley Advance.