Waiting for the light to change, Maria felt a build up of anger behind her on the sidewalk. She pulled her arms in, tried to shrink away from the flames. People crowded closer. She took a half step toward the curb. The feeling of being trapped increased.
“Damn refugees,” a man muttered. “Brought disease. Took our jobs. My taxes pay for your shelter.”
Someone jammed their elbow against her side, setting her off balance. A car raced by. She turned and pushed her way to the back of the crowd. Still anger boiled around her. Home, the refugee center where she and her husband with their two young children lived, was just ahead. She had to cross this road. She could go down the block, away from this knot of people, but she knew it would do no good. The anger was everywhere.
It was this new influenza virus, the H8N9 strain. Just ten years after the Covid-19 pandemic, this flu threatened to shut down the city. Blame was being shouted at the government, at homeless people, and recently, the anger had settled on refugees. She heard the words muttered in grocery store line ups and by people she passed on the street. The anger was a heat that burned everywhere.
Her empathic ability connected her to anger. She felt it as heat when someone around her was angry. And these days, it was like a raging fire everywhere she went. Despite the fact that experts said that the strain of avian flu had been brought by migrating birds, had killed almost all the pigeons in the city before crossing to humans, too many citizens of Metro had decided that refugees brought it north.
The light turned green. The waiting crowd hurried forward across the road. Maria waited a moment and then followed. She kept her eyes lowered, waited to sense anger. At the other side, she hurried toward safety. The refugee center was in the middle of this block. A flame of anger pulled her eyes up. A man stood with folded arms glaring at her, blocking her way. The same man who elbowed her before. Maria took a step backward. How was she going to get home?
A woman walked around him, glancing back at him, then turned and met Maria’s eyes. Her steps slowed. She walked past, then came back and took Maria’s arm. “I’ll walk you home,” she said.
Maria hesitated before nodding. “Thank you.”
The woman nudged Maria toward the buildings, keeping herself between Maria and the man who now looked even angrier. After they passed, Maria glanced back and saw him glaring at her still. How to cope with such fury in a stranger?
“This is my building,” Maria said. “Thank you.”
“I don’t like the misguided blame being attached to you refugees. As if you have not already suffered enough having to leave home.”
“Meeting kindness like your helps a great deal.”
“Be careful,” the woman said, then continued on her way.
Inside the shelter, Maria slumped into a chair in the common room, her whole body shaking. She needed to get her thoughts together before going to the room her family shared.
Maria folded her hands in her lap and stared at her fingers. This encounter suggested there was real danger. She had planned to turn down the nannying job she had been offered. The mother had been nasty, the oldest child burning with anger at the idea a live-in nanny was necessary. But the house had a tiny apartment, once the servants’ quarters. The job offer included having her whole family move into that apartment.
Maria sighed. It was a way out of the crowded core. Her family would be safe from the anger and blame directed at helpless refugees. It was a job. It would be a start here in Toronto. Living with the anger of that child would be exhausting for her, given her empathic connection to the emotion, but maybe she could help the child let go of what troubled him.
Stopping by the refugee office, she gave the details of the job to the staff on duty who would arrange for the work permit. At her family’s room, she pasted a smile on her face and announced the move. Her two children were disappointed, but she assured them they could return to the centre for evening programs or on the weekend. Within a week, the family moved out of the shelter into the slightly larger apartment. As she collected the morning paper from the front step three days later, the picture on the front made her weep. Flames engulfed the refugee centre. The headline claimed the fire was arson. Ten people had died. It could have been us!