Fire evacuees on campus are an inspiration to us all

By Dr. Vianne Timmons, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Regina. Posted: July 10, 2015 11:00 a.m.

The North and South residence towers at the U of R Campus have served as temporary homes to fire evacuees.
The North and South residence towers at the U of R Campus have served as temporary homes to fire evacuees. (Photo - External Relations)

On the morning of June 30, I walked across campus to visit the first evacuees from northern Saskatchewan who've been brought to the University of Regina to escape the forest fires threatening their communities.

As I joined a group of older people at a table, I asked how they were doing. As one might expect under the circumstances, they were rather shy, but soon shared where they are from, and a little about their families. After a few moments, they talked about how fires had forced them to leave their homes - and in many cases, family members - with little more than the clothes on their backs.

I was astonished by the calm, matter-of-fact way in which they told their stories. Far from complaining about their situation, they instead expressed gratitude for the assistance they have received from so many people and organizations, such as the Red Cross, the provincial government, and the brave men and women fighting the fires.

But I was in for an even bigger shock. When I sat down with them, I'd asked if they needed anything. "No," they said. "We're all fine." Later, I asked again. After a long silence, one man quietly said, "I might need something, but I'm not sure if you can help."

I said I'd try, so he told me he needed his regular kidney dialysis that afternoon. Despite his kidney failure, he didn't demand dialysis, or even expect it. He was simply hoping he'd be able to access it in Regina, but didn't want to impose on anyone by asking.

Following his lead, another woman spoke up and said that, since I'd asked, she hoped to pick up a few personal items because she had left home with only the clothes she was wearing.

Before I said goodbye, I relayed their needs to the Red Cross, which told me it would immediately work to ensure their needs would be met.

This conversation has stayed with me - in fact, haunted me - for the past week. I was impressed - to be honest, humbled and even ashamed - by the evacuees' unassuming show of courage, grace and dignity.

Were I in their position, I know I would not be able to face the potential loss of my home, separation from my family, and a long, dispossessed journey to an unfamiliar community with anywhere near the bravery they have shown.

I define "resilience" as the ability to adapt to stress and adversity. The evacuees who calmly, and without expectation, shared their stories are the very embodiment of that.

It is difficult to see anything positive in a situation where many of our fellow Saskatchewanians are forced from their homes and communities. But if I can see anything positive in this, it's the lesson in resilience taught to me by the evacuees with whom I have spoken - people among us whose character must not be underestimated, and whose courage, grace and dignity in the face of loss should be an inspiration to us all.