‘Mama Debra’ opened her home to students and refugees
“Mama Debra” died on Mother’s Day.
Journalist Debra Fieguth had no children of her own, but befriended hundreds of international students and immigrants.
Fieguth died suddenly May 8 from an undiagnosed lung disease, which caused a massive stroke. She was 62.
The award-winning journalist, who freelanced for the Anglican Journal, didn’t shy away from tough topics. In “Educating Omar,” published last September in Faith Today magazine, she told the story of how an English professor at a Christian university in Edmonton had for seven years been co-ordinating the education of one of Canada’s most infamous prisoners, child soldier Omar Khadar, first held in the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and later in Edmonton.
Fieguth was born Nov. 29, 1953 in the small Saskatchewan town of Battleford, about 135 km northwest of Saskatoon.
“She was an excellent journalist, with a strong sense of both personal faith and social justice,” said veteran journalist Lloyd Mackey, who first met Fieguth in 1976, when he was editor of The Chilliwack Progress and she was embarking on her 40-year career in journalism.
For 12 years, Fieguth was editor of BC Christian News in Vancouver, then in 1992 moved to Winnipeg, where she worked as an editor at ChristianWeek and in 1995 met her future husband, Dr. Ian Ritchie. In 2000, they moved to Kingston, where Ritchie was ordained an Anglican priest.
The two had a special love for Africa. Fieguth had visited Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda in the early 1990s, several years before she met her husband, who had taught for five years in Nigeria. He was pleased she had made Africa a priority before visiting Europe.
A 2010 journey took them to Zambia for the wedding of Chewe Nkole, the young man they considered their African son. In total, Fieguth made six trips to Africa, visiting nine countries.
Friday night dinners
Additional travel to the Middle East inspired them to open their small Kingston home to international students attending Queen’s University. Every Friday night for seven years, anywhere from 15 to 25 young people would arrive for dinner and a Bible study. “Mama Debra” and “Papa Ian” would eventually welcome students from more than 40 countries.
“When you get a chance to be invited into a real Canadian family’s home, for the first time, and you feel like you are home, with a mom and a dad, for [the students] it was very personal and they loved Debra,” Ritchie told the Kingston Whig-Standard. “She was encouraged by the idea of being a mother-figure, to even more people than if she had had her own children. She felt very strongly that her mission in life was to be hospitable, especially to the stranger, because the Bible encourages hospitality to strangers.”
Most of these students came from very hospitable cultures, but had never seen the inside of a Canadian home. She wrote in Faith Today: “What a perfect opportunity to make our home a mission, where young people-often the brightest minds in their home countries-can relax, enjoy food, ask questions and learn.
“It is a holy thing when we see a Chinese student, taught all her life that God doesn’t exist, begin to understand that not only is there a God, but that he loves her. It’s precious to watch as a Muslim student begins to ask tentative questions about how the Jesus we worship is different from the Jesus he has read about in the Koran.”
A heart for refugees
Fieguth was a founding member of the decade-old DOORS (Diocese of Ontario Refugee Support), which recently welcomed more than 60 refugees from Syria and elsewhere.
“I can’t fix Syria; I can’t fix Europe,” Fieguth told the Kingston Whig-Standard in an interview last October. “What I can do is help bring a few families to safety.”
Last September, she asked her bishop, Michael Oulton, to hire her for one day a week to help parishes and other sponsoring groups bring families over. He agreed, and she worked tirelessly, almost around the clock. At the time of her death, she had co-ordinated 14 sponsorship groups under the umbrella of the Anglican diocese of Ontario, and had advised the local Catholic archdiocese as well. In fact, she helped people across Canada connect with Sponsorship Agreement Holders.
She came to know many of these refugees personally as her Christmas letter reveals:
“While we have been waiting, others have also waited: the Eritrean widow and her three young adult daughters who arrived in November had been living in ‘temporary’ circumstances in Sudan for more than 20 years; a Burundian family with nine kids also arrived after living in a Tanzanian refugee camp for several years. And just an hour ago, we went to the Kingston airport to greet a Syrian family of six who have been waiting for a few years to come to Canada. It was, for many, the best Christmas present…Our response here is only a drop in the bucket, but it is so gratifying to be part of this huge movement of hospitality to newcomers.”
Four hundred mourners, some of them wearing hijabs, packed the pews of St. George’s Cathedral in Kingston for her funeral. A large contingent of mostly Iranian students came down from Ottawa to pay their respects. Most of the pallbearers were international students or refugees whom Fieguth had befriended.
After Bishop Oulton’s homily, the large Kashira clan, almost all of whom were brought from Congo to Canada several years ago, in part through Fieguth’s efforts, sang the Swahili hymn Hakuna Munga Kama Wewe, which means “There is no God like our God.”
“The air was electric, in a way that was both awesomely sad, and yet also very, very great,” said Ritchie, who is diocesan interfaith officer and interim priest-in-charge of the Parish of Trinity in Camden East and Tamworth. “Not many people get this kind of response. I am humbled by it. I feel at last Debra is getting the recognition she deserved all along.”
Besides writing or editing thousands of articles in numerous publications, Fieguth authored two books: Keepers of the Faith (2001), which follows the journeys of five Canadian Indigenous women, and The Door is Open: Glimpses of Hospitality in the Kingdom of God (2010).
Sue Careless was a colleague and friend of Debra Fieguth.