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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Part 10: Our town, their town

Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Jun. 27, 2003

They came to Brooks for the wages at Lakeside; his wife still works there, trimming fat on the day shift, but Mr. Fully is taking nursing courses and now mows lawns for the town.

It was different in Newfoundland, he says - strangers brought meals to their house, and one woman gave the family a lift home in a downpour. They would soak her car seats, he told her. "But she said, `These are material things. You guys are important.' You don't find that here. Even if you say hello, they just pass you by."

The Fullys have been in Brooks for three years, but they have yet to make real friends with anyone. Mr. Fully, who worked for the Red Cross in Ghana, has perfect English, but at their daughter's soccer game, they sit off to the side from the other parents. Sometimes they join them, but Mawa says she can tell people feel uncomfortable, and it can be just too much work.

The hardest thing, Mr. Fully says, is the awkward smiles - as if he doesn't notice when people cross the street to avoid him. "They don't want to show they don't like immigrants. They want to pretend. But the body language doesn't match. They smile, but inside it is different."

Veronica Lissa, a Sudanese who moved here from Seattle with her young daughter, gives the same assessment of Brooks. Like Mr. Fully, her English is excellent. If you ask for help, she says, people here will give it - a man she didn't know once drove home for cables to boost her car. But as a group, she says, they walk the streets with blinders on.

"Any change in your community, you approach with caution. Here they just try to block it out."

She often waits longer than she should at store counters. "Finally, you say, `Excuse me, are you open for business?' It's like you don't exist."

At school, her daughter punched a boy who called her "blackie" during a basketball game; now she wants to go back to Seattle. "I told her, `We're going to change those people's attitudes. We're going to teach them.' "

Such complaints are not universal, at least not openly. Chan Ray, 21, a Cambodian who moved here as a teenager and now works out on the oil patch, shrugs off questions about race. The cowboys "just wear their pants a bit tighter than I do," he jokes.

And at a pizzeria, Nassrullah Cheema, a Pakistani Muslim, offers: "I have never had anyone tell me I should go back home to my country. I don't have problems with the people here."

But at Sam's Oriental Market, some customers will quietly express reservations. A Muslim teenager tells how his classmates call him a "terrorist," but when pushed for more details, he nervously insists that they are only joking.

The owner, Sam Chum, describes all the nationalities that line up here after pay days at Lakeside, and talks of expanding. In the manner of all wise businessmen, he has only praise for his customers' town. He points cheerfully to a regular, a middle-aged white man with a handlebar mustache who has come in for a jug of water, and urges me to talk to him.

In the parking lot, the man says he stops here only because it is on his way home. There are "too many different cultures" in Brooks, he says. "If I didn't have so many years on my pension, I'd be gone." And he drives off, without giving a name.

5 ROBTv Workopolis