On Refugees: Reflections from the 2017 JACAC Student Forum
I’m seeing a lot of discussion lately about refugees crossing into Canada. In fact, as I write this, I am watching a debate in Canadian Parliament about whether or not we should close our borders to refugees. In addition, I am currently at the 2017 Japan-Canada Academic Consortium (JACAC) Student Forum, on the theme of "Immigration Policies and National Borders: Integration and Exclusion". Being at a forum about refugees means that I have been constantly reflecting on my own family's refugee experience and how it shaped who I am to this day.
I thought I would share some of these reflections.
To begin, In order to understand my story, we must first understand my parents. For now, I will talk about my father.
In 1959, my father was born in a northern Somali town called Borama and did his schooling and National Service as a teacher and soldier. Afterwards, he was accepted into the prestigious Somali National University to study Civil Engineering. He did extremely well and received an overall grade of 106/110. While in university, he met my mom. And after graduation, they decided to stay in Mogadishu.
My parents had a fairly normal life and my dad progressed from working in government to owning his own company in the capital. For those few years, life was peaceful. Unfortunately, the country had growing instability and the central government was losing power. My father, hoping it would blow over, wanted to stay. However, the gunfire did not stop and it came closer and closer. Eventually, in 1991, they made the difficult decision to leave their home.
Their plan was to go to the port and catch a boat to Kenya. Along the way, my father and mother were separated. It is unclear what exactly happened to my father - since he never talked about it - but he sustained war related hearing loss and experienced psychological trauma.
Nevertheless, my mom and older sister managed to make it on the boat. However, it sank along the way but they were rescued and ended up in Mombasa.
Fortunately, my father escaped and my family was reunited.
In Kenya, they claimed asylum and began their new life as refugees. It was a time of limbo and uncertainty. Nevertheless, my dad volunteered for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as an Engineer. This kept him busy while my mom worked in the market.
A few years later, in 1994, I was born. Born stateless.
This was because Kenya did not grant citizenship to refugees and the Somali government simply did not exist.
My family's life continued to be in limbo without legal status or guarantee of a stable life in Kenya or in a peaceful Somalia.
After six years in the camp, my family got word that Canada would grant us asylum. Soon after, we were on a plane and landed in Edmonton on February 12, 1997. This gave us hope.
However, my fathers degree and my mothers education were not recognized by the Canadian government. Nor was there a program for their credentials to be recognized. So they ended up taking whatever job they could get. My dad worked in Brooks in the meat packing plant while my mom worked as a nursing aid.
Despite this precarious employment - education continued to be important to him. So he enrolled at NAIT and worked to gain the qualifications necessary to be an engineer again. He also made sure to emphasis the importance of education to me. For example, he attended every single parent teacher meeting ready with questions.
Still, I was a pretty bad student. But in Grade 6, I managed to get 67% on an exam. I was proud so I showed it to my dad. He smiled and put it away. He believed in me.
On August 13, 2007, my father passed away.
My family was devastated and the years following were difficult for us. I felt lost and cared even less about education. This changed when I was going through his old stuff and found a box full of his degrees and awards. And at the top of the box was the test I wrote in Grade 6. This is when I realized the importance of education.
After that, I focused more and ended up doing well in Grade 9 - the year that decided what academic ‘stream’ you went into for high school. I ended up being streamed in Advanced Placement and got accepted into the University of Alberta.
In the years after, I've had numerous opportunities and experiences that have shaped who I am today. But every once in a while, I reflect.
Reflection is important.
For me, its important because my past heavily influenced my future. I entered Political Science because I wanted to understand why I ended up as a refugee. I got involved in politics because I didn't want others to go through the same struggles. And I write these posts because I know that a story makes these refugee situations more personal.
Anyhow, I feel for those who are currently making the precarious journey into Canada. Especially those who are entering from the United States - where their government treats refugees like criminals.
I guess my general point is that it's our responsibility to ensure that these refugees can claim asylum and have their case heard. They are people just like us.
As a result, we need to have empathy and put ourselves in their shoes. Because its possible that you may one day be a refugee.
Just like I was.