Kudos to James Watts for his suggestion that the now – disaffected Royal Victoria Hospital be converted and used to help accommodate some of the Syrian refugees who will arrive in this city, perhaps as early as next month. (“Use old Royal Vic to house refugees”, Gazette, Letters, November 12, 2015”)
The historic edifice is certainly large enough that various agencies could use it to dispense their diverse services to those in need – temporary refugee housing, language education, social integration, mental-health and social assistance are but a few that come to mind.
It is not uncommon in Montreal for essentially abandoned buildings to find yet another vocation, in some form or another. One has only to bring to mind the former Church of the Ascension on Park Avenue that is today a municipal library. Also, the earlier Erskine and American United Church at the head of Crescent on Sherbrooke Street is today the property of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and used by them for various purposes.
Deserted urban structures have also occasionally been used for altruistic purposes as well. On March 15, 2014, I wrote in The Gazette about the rapid conversion in 1910 of the old Northern Electric Building, which still stands abandoned to this day by the entrance to the Lucien L’Allier Metro Station. (The article can be found on this same website.) The alteration, realized entirely with private funds and the selfless physical work of many a volunteer, took place in order to make room for the hundreds of Montrealers who were roaming the numerous avenues of this city with typhoid, and unable to find a bed in the overcrowded local sickbays. Styled the Montreal Emergency Typhoid Hospital, the endeavour was one of the more glorious moments in the history of this city.
There is no question but that the old ‘Royal Vic’, tucked away at the top University Street and on the slope of Mount Royal, would make an excellent choice as a location to house temporarily the many desperate refugees from Syria heading to our shores. In doing so, the 1893 derelict structure would have to be heated to assure the comfort of those inhabiting it. And, as we all know, nothing contributes more to the swift breakdown of a man-made construction than the failure to heat it. By housing the Syrian asylum seekers in the old Royal Victoria Hospital, we would be achieving two ends with a single effort.
For those concerned about the security question, I can only say that I feel that the risk is absolutely minimal. Then again, I must confess to having a particular fondness for the people of Syria.
In November of 2007, I embarked on a nine day visit to that ancient country. The organized tour, which originated in London, is one I will always remember. It took place less than four years before the outbreak of the current hostilities. Nothing I saw would have caused me to think that such a catastrophe could occur.
One extraordinary experience was the interaction our diverse group had with the Syrian people themselves. A warm, welcoming, outgoing, seemingly happy populace greeted us wherever we journeyed in this now star-crossed land. I recall being stopped by a couple of graduate students just outside the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Damascus. They wanted to welcome me to Syria (I was obviously a tourist!) and, at the same time, practise their English. A highly educated people, they knew a surprising great deal about Canada, a country that they held in great esteem.
At the time, it was not uncommon for total strangers to hand you proudly their toddlers for your delight and admiration. In age, they were often similar to the young brothers found tragically dead a few months ago near a resort beach in Turkey. Indeed, everywhere we were taken in Syria there were children – lots of them – and everywhere these children were seemingly treasured by all.
For me, that is what makes this civil war so calamitous – its appalling impact on what were that nation’s unblemished offspring.
Canadians should open their hearts to these unfortunate people, many of whom have lost virtually everything. Let’s spruce up the old ‘Royal Vic’ to make their arrival in Montreal as comfortable as possible.
Below, two friends I met in the ancient market of Aleppo.