Finding Refugee in Canada: Narratives of Dislocation

By Agnieszka Matejko

Edited by George Melynk and Christina Parker Athabasca University Press 2021/$27.99/196 pp.

Our flight from Africa landed at the Edmonton airport in the midst of a February snowstorm. Tarmac lighting illuminated horizontal gusts of snow that vanished into the cold night. My parents, outspoken activists originating from communist Poland, had finally escaped political oppression. The year was 1970, and since then I have become a proud Canadian with few remnants of an accent. Yet the sense of being a newcomer lingers.

Despite my affinity with the topic, I picked up Finding Refuge in Canada with apprehension. Books on this subject frequently fall into two categories: dreary policy discourses or amateur biographies. Remarkably, this anthology of first-person accounts by 17 contributors—including the co-editors George Melnyk and Christina Parker—is not only readable but at times a page turner.

The introduction offers an eye-opening capsule of Canada’s refugee policies. For instance, how many of us know that newly arrived asylum seekers have only two weeks to file a claim? What do we make of objectivity when federal court judges’ approval of claims varies from 1.5 per cent by some to 78 per cent by others? But, as I begin to question Canada’s reputation as a just and welcoming country, the authors tell of the outpouring of private sponsorships during the Syrian refugee crisis.

What follows in Finding Refuge in Canada are lived stories by refugees and those who work with them. Among the unforgettable stories here is a harrowing tale by Kenyan social worker Flora Terah, who visited refugee camps and spoke to women and their daughters, including a pregnant 10-year-old who described being raped. Such experiences spurred Terah to run for office, until an assault by her opponents left her too battered to campaign. The murder of her only child dealt the final blow and forced to her to emigrate.

Once safely in Canada, Terah encountered acts of kindness but little genuine empathy. “We need to understand that the suitcases newcomers come with are not just physical ones,” she says. Grief, camouflaged by a “cosmetic smile,” wore her down and led to hospitalization. Despite continuing battles with PTSD, her accomplishments are extraordinary: She volunteers, and serves as a public speaker and ambassador for ShelterBox Canada. Now Terah plans to again run for office, only this time in Canada as a proud citizen.

As newcomers such as Terah struggle to adjust, many Canadians are reaching out. Katharine Lake Berz and Julia Holland are among them. It took just a week for the two to assemble a group of sponsors, but it was only after a series of protests, meetings and setbacks—including a fully furnished apartment that lay empty for months—that their family of Kurdish refugees from Syria finally landed in Toronto.

The first translated words that Elham, the young mother of three, said after a gruelling flight was, “Elham would like to go to school.” That proved to be a challenge; the family were illiterate and innumerate, without any education, savings or English skills. Yet, they had huge smiles and determination to succeed. In some ways their adjustment proved easier than for the more educated refugees whose professional skills are not recognized. This family was willing to try anything and found jobs well before their sponsorship year ended.

Such stirring personal stories read like conversations with new friends. At the same time, the kaleidoscope of perspectives from refugees, volunteers and advocates draws a nearly complete picture. The blend of policy with intimacy makes this book well suited for high school or university curriculums. After all, the new generation of Canadians is well placed to take leadership roles amidst a growing global refugee crisis. As this book shows, they have tall shoulders to stand upon.

Agnieszka Matejko is a writer and artist in Edmonton.

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