Six Waves of Refugees

Syrians are only Alberta’s most recent newcomers

By George Melnyk

A refugee is someone who is forced to flee from persecution in their home country, or who has fled violence, war or destruction. To meet the definition in the 1951 Geneva Convention used in Canadian law, a refugee must have a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion in their country of origin.

I came to Canada at the age of three with my parents and brothers after the Second World War. We were of Ukrainian heritage and stateless. Being a refugee myself has given me empathy for others who suffer the same fate. I have witnessed numerous waves of refugees come to Canada, including the 37,000 Hungarians who arrived here after their 1956 uprising and the 11,000 Czechs in 1968 who came after the Prague Spring. Both nationalities faced Soviet military intervention.

Since then Alberta has grown diverse and multicultural by welcoming refugees. Accepting the world’s displaced has expanded our province’s cultural identity, reinforced our self-image of tolerance and understanding and deepened our awareness of global issues. Through helping refugees we have ourselves become stronger and more resilient.

Uganda 1972

Asians, many with British passports, were expelled from Uganda in 1972. Canada played a leading role in resettling these unfortunate and often penniless people, whose homes, businesses and property were confiscated by General Idi Amin Dada. Canada’s government of the day, headed by the current prime minister’s father, arranged an airlift to bring the expelled Asians to our country. Some 7,000 were admitted within a year.

Sixteen-year-old Rossbina Nathoo, her parents and two siblings were among the tens of thousands of Ismaili Muslims who fled Uganda in 1972. The family arrived in Vancouver with only a couple of suitcases. When she married, Rossbina came to Calgary. She started volunteering when single and continued after she became a stay-at-home mom. This became more meaningful as she better understood the needs of her neighbourhood and community. Eventually she established FOCUS on Seniors, a multigenerational group of volunteers that works with seniors in northeast Calgary. As a staunch member of the 10,000-strong Ismaili community in Calgary, Nathoo believes her faith and volunteerism go together.

Chile 1973–1978

In 1973 General Augusto Pinochet staged a coup against the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende and became the country’s dictator. The ensuing brutal crackdown involved murder and imprisonment. Thousands of people were killed and tens of thousands put in jail. Canada accepted over 7,000 Chilean refugees from 1973 to 1978 and continued to accept them in smaller numbers until the end of the Pinochet regime.

Twenty-six-year-old Mario Allende, living with his wife Angélica and their 18-month-old son in northern Chile, was arrested in the early hours after the military coup on September 11, 1973. They were both social workers. He was imprisoned for 18 months, including six months in a notorious concentration camp in northern Chile where executions took place. Through the efforts of a Canadian priest who lived in Chile, their plight was brought to the attention of the Canadian embassy. They arrived in Edmonton in 1976. Angélica was able to resume her career as a social worker and Mario worked for an NGO that provided settlement services. Later he began a career with the Alberta government helping immigrants and refugees.

Vietnam 1979–1980

Vietnamese began leaving after that country’s war with the United States ended in 1975. By the end of the decade thousands of people had embarked on the open sea in rickety, overcrowded boats, ending up in refugee camps in Thailand and other countries. Canada responded to this humanitarian crisis by sending immigration officers to the camps and accepting 60,000 “boat people” for resettlement in one year. Of those, 60 per cent were privately sponsored. Many were airlifted to Canada on charter flights.

Hieu Van Ngo was born in 1972 in a village in central Vietnam. In 1980 his widowed mother took him and his siblings to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). In 1987 she sent Hieu to Cambodia. He was 15. From there he was smuggled on a small boat to Thailand, where he lived for two years in a refugee camp along with 20,000 Cambodians, Laotians, Vietnamese and Hmong. He was joined by his siblings and cousins. A woman he met in the camp had a relative in Calgary, who with a Catholic church in the city co-sponsored them. Hieu arrived in Calgary on November 25, 1990. Only 18 years old, he lived in an apartment in Chinatown, went to Crescent Heights High School and cleaned office towers at night. He graduated at 21 and went to the University of Calgary, where he earned a Ph.D. in social work and got a job as an assistant professor. He was recently awarded a $5-million research grant to study how positive identity can prevent youth gang involvement. In 1996, when he became a Canadian citizen, he sponsored his mother, who now lives in Calgary. The circle is complete.

Sudan 1983–2005

Sudan experienced a civil war from 1983 to 2005 between its Muslim north and its Christian south. The war was brutal and displaced many people. The term “lost boys and girls” refers to the many children orphaned, forced to be child soldiers or displaced by war, who ended up in refugee camps in neighbouring countries such as Kenya. Tens of thousands were able to come to Canada; roughly 12,000 Sudanese and South Sudanese live in Alberta today.

Peter Chol, whose ethnic identity is Dinka, is the founder of the South Sudanese Peacebuilding International Foundation (SSPBIF). He was born in Bor, Sudan in 1973. His father was a teacher and school principal who rose to a high administrative position. When the war started, Chol’s father lived in the capital, Khartoum, while Peter lived with his mother in Bor, in the southern secessionist region. The war divided the family. At age 23 he fled to Kenya along with most of his siblings, where he lived in a refugee camp. Eventually he moved to Nairobi, and then registered with the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees).

In late 2003 Chol came to Winnipeg as a government-sponsored refugee. A year later he moved to Brooks, where he worked in the meatpacking plant. There he set up a Dinka congregation associated with the Anglican Church. In 2008 he became a Canadian citizen. His work with the SSPBIF is meant to bring peace and reconciliation in his homeland and to assist the South Sudanese diaspora in Canada with its issues, including unemployment, the reintegration of former child soldiers and ethnic conflict.

A peace agreement was signed in 2005, and in 2011 South Sudan became an independent country. Chol returned to Sudan in 2010 to see his father for the first time in 28 years, then travelled to South Sudan, where he saw his mother for the first time since coming to Canada.

Bhutan 2007

Bhutan is a tiny Himalayan kingdom that forced its ethnic Nepalese minority to leave. In total 108,000 people ended up living in refugee camps in Nepal. Starting in 2007 Canada agreed to accept 6,500 of these refugees. Today Lethbridge has the single largest Bhutanese community in Canada.

Govin Tsimsina became a refugee in 1991, when he was only 15 years old. He belonged to the Nepalese minority in Bhutan that had been agitating for democracy and human rights. After being arrested and interrogated he was able to flee to India, which deported him to Nepal, where he lived in a refugee camp. Later he went to school in India, graduating with a B.A. in accounting. As a stateless person he applied to come to Canada. He arriving in 2001, at 25 years old, moved to Edmonton and operated several gas stations. He was the only Bhutanese in the city. In 2009 he began working for Catholic Social Services to assist with the arrival of the first wave of Bhutanese to the city. Currently Tsimsina is the agency’s housing coordinator, helping Syrian families find homes.

Syria 2011–

A multi-sided civil war that started in 2011 has led to millions of internally displaced Syrians, as well as to millions more who have fled to Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. The world was shocked by the desperation of the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who risked the sea crossing from Turkey to Greece in order to reach sanctuary. At the end of 2015 Canada organized a rapid-response airlift of 25,000 UNHCR-registered Syrian refugees. Almost 3,000 came to Alberta by February 2016, settling in communities across the province, with the majority in Edmonton and Calgary. Many had large families, no fluency in English and limited job prospects. Citizen groups, settlement agencies and religious entities welcomed the arrivals and are helping them slowly integrate.

Suleiman Hajj Soleiman and Fatima Al Youssef and their six children come from a village in northern Syria, where Suleiman was a barber. The family stayed in their village in spite of the fighting until 2012, when they fled to Lebanon. There they lived in Suleiman’s brother’s house until moving to a refugee camp, where they spent a year before the camp was demolished. Seeing no hope of returning home, they registered with the UNHCR and 20 days later were called to an interview at the Canadian embassy. They arrived in Edmonton on January 1, 2016.

Personal Statements

1. Rossbina Nathoo

“I was 16 when I arrived in Canada. A sense of hope, security and gratitude filled my heart as we were warmly welcomed. Our family, along with so many others, had been stripped of our identity and robbed both materially and emotionally. I remember saying to myself, “One day I shall repay this kindness and love.” I have always wanted to be a good Canadian citizen, so for the past 45 years I have been an avid volunteer helping others. It is a value that is intrinsic to being an Ismaili Muslim.”

2. Angélica and Mario Allende

“In 1973 we were still a young family with plenty of hopes and projects in our country. All of a sudden, the darkness of Pinochet’s military dictatorship covered not only our family but thousands of others. We could not see a future in Chile. The chance to start a new life came from Canada. We arrived in Edmonton on February 6, 1976. We were welcomed by a Chilean compatriot on that cold evening. We are thankful for all the opportunities Alberta offered us, so we could learn the language, find a job, raise our children and enjoy the wonderful blue skies—a symbol of freedom to us!”

3. Hieu Van Ngo

“At age 2 I sat with my grandmother looking at our bombed roof and seeing an opening to blue sky. The refugee camp where I found shelter was confined, yet it brought connections. A mentor asked her cousin to sponsor my siblings and me to Canada. My many falls on slippery winter roads trained my eyes to notice fellow Calgarians on the streets. My first job as a night janitor in an office building brought me to the 30th floor, where I stood in stillness at the end of my shifts admiring a vista that inspired my dream of higher education. Understanding inequities inspired social activism in pursuit of the ideal of a fair, inclusive community for all.”

4. Peter Chol

“Being a refugee is very tough. You are separated from your family and your former life. This is especially true of the orphans that war produces. All refugees have to start a new life. My experience in Alberta has been good, but that is not the case for everyone. Here I have been able to start a business and become a cultural ambassador and carry on my ministry. Because I am focused I have been able to help others in my community who find their situations difficult. I appreciate Canada because it is a peaceful and multicultural society.”

5. Govin TSimsiNa

“Refugees are not born but are created. The big issue for a refugee is living without a national identity and having no sense of belonging. But the Bhutanese refugees who came to Alberta have found a new identity as Canadians and Albertans, and we are proud to contribute to society. When I came to Edmonton I discovered it was a city where people could become champions whether as a businessperson, a social worker or an immigrant, all of which I have been.”

6. Suleiman Hajj Soleiman and Fatima Al Youssef

“Before the war, Syria took in refugees from other Arab countries. People helped them with food and shelter. When we ourselves became refugees we understood what it meant to be a refugee. Although we would love to go back, we know we can’t. We came for the children so that they would have a future. Our sponsoring group in Edmonton makes the transition easier. It’s nice here. While Lebanon to Syria is a short trip, we feel more at home in Alberta than we did in Lebanon.” (With thanks to Tamara Alkais, interpreter, and Margaret McPherson, representing the private sponsorship group.)

George Melnyk is professor emeritus of Film Studies at the U of C and the editor or author of 25 non-fiction books.


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