Refugee stories: Flight, freedom and Canada

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Chipping away at Canada's negative legacy to embrace a new, bright future with helping refugees

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When Flight and Freedom: Stories of Escape to Canada co-writers Ratna Omidvar and Dana Wagner started discussing the idea for a book about refugees to Canada, they first needed to decide how to narrow it down.

They wanted to capture a diversity of stories. "People from different parts of the world, people fleeing from different types of persecution, people who themselves reflected a diversity in terms of gender, sexual identity, age, and family situation upon leaving -- single, married, whether they had children or not," said Wagner in a phone interview with rabble.

Omidvar and Wagner wanted to tell these stories because they wanted to confront what they saw happening in Canada, not only in terms of refugee policy but also in terms of public opinion. The Harper government's anti-refugee campaign had been persuasive, and many Canadians believed we had a refugee problem.

Another motivating factor was the question, "Would these refugees get in today?"

The answer: "some yes, some no." 

An essay by Peter Showler, professor of refugee law at the University of Ottawa and former chair of the Immigration and Refugee Board, gives a broad and fascinating historical context to this answer.

At the time of the book's publication, September 2015, many refugees would not be allowed into Canada, among them:

  • Those who came to Canada under emergency resettlement programs, such as the Hungarian (1956-1957), Ugandan (1972-1973) and Indochinese (1979-1981) programs. Five of the individuals who share their stories in Flight and Freedom would have been delayed by years or not made it to Canada at all.

  • Refugees outside their country of origin but not in refugee camps. Three individuals from Myanmar, El Salvador and Burundi would now face distrust of secondary asylum.

  • Five refugees -- from Chile, Germany, Hungary, Poland, and the United States -- would be on Canada's designated safe country list and therefore automatically deemed not to be in need of Canada's protection.

"Today, some of these remarkable individuals would not make it to Canada. A tragedy for them and a loss for Canada," writes Showler.

Based on the profiling that happens for so-called security reasons -- Sorpong Peou, for example, who came from Cambodia, would not get in today.

"Sorpong was part of a family, which works in his favour, but he was engaged in armed fighting while still in Cambodia, after the Khmer Rouge had fallen," says Wagner. "It's detailed in the story why he had to do this -- basically for survival -- but that would essentially be an automatic 'no,' he's not getting in to Canada today. And Sorpong is the head of the Politics department at Ryerson University. It shocks me to think about the type of talent that we could be missing out on because of the profiling that we do, these group designations that we have for people."

Staying with security theme, Tarun, who came from Sri Lanka in 2009, didn't engage in armed-conflict, but as a single, fighting-aged male, he'd have difficulty getting into Canada today.

Another objective of Flight and Freedom was to give a long-term picture of refugees.

A story close to Wagner's heart is that of Humaira, recently arrived from Afghanistan. "The family is just so brimming with potential. This family is right in that beginning stage, but the children are just doing so well in school, and they've come such a long way," she says.

There is now a lot of hope that some of the harsher, more unjust refugee policies of recent years will be overturned.

"You can just look at the policy platform of the Liberal party to see that the promises around refugees involve undoing, repealing, taking away, removing or restoring things, so it's really trying to chip away at the negative legacy," says Wagner.

"Many Canadians have often been ahead of their government in their acceptance and embrace of refugees and other immigrants and have eventually forced government to catch up," writes Maytree founder Alan Broadbent.

Based on the reactions of Canadians, Wagner is also hopeful. "There've been waves of different types of responses, but Canadians have coalesced around wanting to do more than we have been doing," she says.

"It's really important to pay attention to all of the good work that maybe is not so loud. We tend to pay attention when there's a negative response, but a lot of the work that's been happening on the ground doesn't get the same airtime. Just the hours that are being spent on organizing in different cities, initiatives happening through faith communities and workplaces, and I think that's a whole lot more remarkable. That would overwhelm any negative reaction that we've been seeing."

Accepting refugees into Canada also marks the need for more compassionate acceptance policies. Omidvar recommended that we consider annual targets for refugee intake as floors, not ceilings; that we make family reunification a cornerstone of refugee policy; and that as private sponsorships rise, government-assisted refugees should rise alongside.

As Chair of Lifeline Syria, a citizen-led initiative to bring 1,000 privately sponsored Syrian refugees to the Greater Toronto Area, Omidvar has a unique perspective: "Robi Botos, the Canadian jazz virtuoso profiled in Flight and Freedom, has called refugee lives the art of improvisation. I think that's true and we can take great confidence in it. Canadians will find a way to make [the intake of 25,000 Syrian refugees] work. We always have -- from small acts of kindness like making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the Indian Sikhs who docked in Nova Scotia in 1987, to large acts of imagination like the airlift of the Ugandan Asians. In these moments, Canadians are the best version of ourselves. Such a moment is on us again," wrote Omidvar in a statement to rabble.

Flight and Freedom is an excellent book that benefits from the years of expertise of its co-writers and contributors. The 30 stories, which span two centuries and 25 countries of origin, are compellingly told, partly because they are extraordinary stories, but also due to the compassion and clarity brought to them by its curators.

If you are concerned about the 60 million displaced people in the world and curious about Canada's history of helping refugees, buy this book.


Dana Wagner is the Project Manager of the Hire Immigrants program of the Global Diversity Exchange at Ryerson University. rabble interviewed her by telephone on 20 November 2015.

Ratna Omidvar is Executive Director of the Global Diversity Exchange at the Ted Rogers School of Management, Ryerson University. She is also Chair of Lifeline Syria. Her statement was provided to rabble on 23 November 2015.

Sarah Hipworth is a member of Sanctuary Hamilton and a steering committee member of Canadian Peace Alliance. She is co-editor of Let Them Stay, a book of oral histories, interviews and essays about U.S. War Resisters in Canada from 2004 to the present, forthcoming from Iguana Books. The War Resisters' bid for Canada's protection as refugees has been complicated by many factors, including the Designated Countries of Origin policy.

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