World Refugee Day is all about celebrating the resilience of refugees. Here are just three inspiring, warm and tenacious people of refugee background I’ve been lucky to meet in the past few weeks.
Each of them has been moved by the kindness of strangers – literally and emotionally. Literally because they were sponsored to settle in Canada by strangers who then became family. And emotionally, because each of them has stories about how Canadians welcomed them with open arms after they'd experienced great trauma.
Canada has taught me that in Australia we could do a lot more to tap into the kindness of strangers when it comes to resettling refugees. Australia has a new community sponsorship program for refugees, but it pales in comparison to Canada’s private sponsorship program (see Tom Ballard’s tongue in cheek critique here and check out Amnesty's #MyNewNeighbourCampaign for more info).
I’ll write more about the Canadian model soon and how we could adapt if for Australia. But for now, enjoy some inspiring refugee stories from Canada!
Amir Taghinia, Vancouver
I met Amir at his home in Vancouver. He was in the process of packing his modest possessions into boxes so he could move into a share house. He had decided living alone wasn’t a great idea after everything he’s been through.
Amir was just 19 when he tried to seek asylum in Australia. He was fleeing persecution in Iran and had already spent years in Malaysia trying to make a life there.
He knew his time was up in Malaysia, but he could never go back to Iran. So he boarded a boat bound for Australia. Little did he know the Australian Government had just struck a deal with Papua New Guinea to re-open a detention centre for people seeking asylum on Manus Island.
He was one of the first refugees to be sent to Manus Island under Australia’s abusive offshore detention policy. He spent five precious years of his life there.
While most teenagers his age were transitioning from high school to jobs and university, Amir was doing all he could to occupy himself and support the other guys held in detention. He taught other refugees English, built things, did gardening, and smuggled in a phone so he could connect with the world and research how to get off the Island.
In 2015 he started a process that would eventually land him in Vancouver.
He met Chelsea Taylor, a young Canadian woman working on Manus Island, and asked whether she would sponsor him through Canada’s private refugee sponsorship program. She was willing – and she got her whole family and many of her friends involved to make it happen.
The whole process took 2 years, but in November 2017 Amir was welcomed at Vancouver airport by Chelsea’s parents, Wayne and Linda Taylor.
When I asked him about it Amir said, “How great some people can be on this planet".
"Look at this family. How people can allow themselves a single adult male, coming to their house, sharing a meal with them, providing accommodation and everything, without any questions. Just like their son. Trusting and helping to settle a new life from scratch.”
Amir is now working hard to settle into Vancouver, making friends, studying and on the hunt for a job, trying to heal the phycological scars from his time on Manus. He’s proud to call himself a Canadian resident.
Siham Abu Sitta, Toronto
I met Siham and her three daughters in their lovely home in Toronto. Siham told me her story of coming to Canada.
Back in 2013, their worlds were torn apart when Siham’s husband was killed in Syria by a sniper. Grief stricken and terrified, Siham and the girls walked for three days to escape to Lebanon. They had to walk, as being Palestinian they did not have official ID and therefore risked being turned back at the border.
“I decided I will not allow anything to hurt my kids anymore. They had enough”, she said.
Siham found work but because they didn’t have legal status in Lebanon they had to be extremely careful. They didn’t even catch the bus for fear that they would be picked up at a checkpoint and sent back to Syria. They walked everywhere. Siham was desperate.
“In that moment to be honest I was thinking to use the boat and go to Europe. I was very exhausted. Very tired. Hopeless. Looking in my kids eyes – I cannot tell them this is all I can offer you guys”, Siham said.
Siham’s fortunes were turned around by Carol Mansour, a filmmaker of Lebanese and Canadian background. Siham was one of four women featured in Mansour’s film “Not Who We Are”, which screened at a film festival in Toronto.
In the audience were members of a refugee sponsorship group in the Fairlawn Avenue United Church. They were moved by the film, and reached out to Carol to see whether they could sponsor Siham. Carol not only put them in touch, but she facilitated the whole refugee sponsorship process for Siham, who at that stage spoke very little English.
When Siham learned that a United Church congregation of 200 people was preying for her to arrive safely, she took heart. I think Siham tells it best, so I’ll just relay what she said to me verbatim.
“I am not religious by the way, but it was a very moving moment for me. It gave me more energy and more strength to complete my way and not give up. It’s very important when people are in bad situation just to know there is just someone who cares about you.
Like when we speak about empathy, this is what we want. You cannot maybe give me food to survive, but at least you will mention me, you will cry for me, you will think about me and I will get that. For me it’s very very important and for refugees in general.
It’s not the money, it’s not the food basket, it’s not the things that you give me to survive. It’s your caring.
And we made it. We came to Canada in January 2016.
My expectation was that I will find people and they will give me monthly money ... Because they mentioned how much money they collect for me.
I never imagined that I will have fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, counsellors, people who really care, who adopt my future as part of their future. It’s an amazing experience.
Then the formal relation ended one year after the sponsor started. I had meeting and they told me financially we cannot support you but everything else will stay the same. So till now, I have people to babysit. I have people to teach my kids math, because we never had math. I have people to drive us if we need. I have family to call if I am exhausted or anything happen. So I am not alone.
And thank god I made it. I started working three months after my arrival. I made it and I am fine. But forever I am grateful for what they made and what they offered and they are still offering me.”
Siham then showed me a patchwork quilt that has pride of place in her living room.
“I want to share something with you. The age of this is 100 years. One of my sponsors – she got this from her grandma. And she thought I am the one who deserves to keep it. So, it’s not just the money for food or something. I have many things that are special from them”.
Siham is now a settlement counsellor and her beautiful girls are settled into school and life. Her resilience is an inspiration: “You know we went through death or life situations … So you don’t just stop and say, oh this is what I can do. You cannot say that. You say I will do it. Without thinking about your resources. You create resources to make things work. You can never give up. I don’t know this word.”
Thikra Abdullah, Ottawa
Thikra is diminutive, but you can tell right away she is strong. And when you hear her story you know why. I met her and her lovely family one evening in Ottawa over a delicious iftar dinner.
Thikra is Palestinian. Her parents fled to Jordan in 1948 with hundreds of thousands of other Palestinians. This original uprooting has led to a life of the move for Thikra and her family.
Her journey escaping war zones has taken her from Iraq to Yemen to Cyprus and Syria. Each place she went she tried to find stability, but each time was forced to flee because of war or the threat of deportation.
When she and her family finally got to Syria it was 2010 and the war had not yet started. Almost immediately the family struck tragedy – when Thikra’s husband died of terminal cancer.
Thikra and her four children were left stranded in a country that would soon be engulfed by war.
Unlike her children, Thikra was a Jordanian citizen. This is because for a time Jordan gave citizenship to Palestinians. However, under Jordanian law women are not able to hand nationality down to their children, which meant Thikra’s children were effectively stateless.
When Syrian authorities found out Thikra was Jordanian it was a catastrophe. Syria-Jordan relations were strained at the time because of the war so Jordanians in Syria were not welcome.
Despite her pleas, Syrian authorities deported Thikra to Jordan. Inexplicably, they would not let her bring her children – including her littlest Rowan, aged only 9.
Rowan, now a precocious and animated high-school student, told me about the dismal conditions they endured without their mum. They were in Yarmouk camp in Syria, not going to school, sleeping on concrete, getting sick because of poor sanitation, and living against the backdrop of bombs exploding and rockets firing.
“If you hear the rocket, you won’t be hit – because when you’re hit you don’t hear a thing”, she recalled.
All the while their mum frantically looked for solutions from Jordan.
Thikra’s son Omar was able to get out and joined his uncle who was in the process of being sponsored to come to Canada. Luckily, Omar was able to join his uncles' application – and settled in Ottawa. Immediately on arrival he started looking for a sponsor for his mum and siblings.
That’s how Thikra met Don Smith from the Anglican Diocese – who has sponsored more refugees to come live in Canada than he can count. When Don heard about Thikra’s situation he immediately got on the phone.
The only way Thikra could get her other kids out of Syria was to pay a people smuggler to take them to Turkey. It was scary, but the people smuggler saved their lives.
Once reunited in Turkey, they were soon on a plane to Ottawa to be with Omar and meet Don and the other sponsors from the Anglican Diocese.
Don is now helping Thikra’s family to reunite with another strand of their family – a brother in law and his family who are currently stuck in Indonesia. Hopefully their application will be processed soon.