Refugee stories: flight and freedom

Running through each immigrant's experience is a common thread of deep gratitude for Canada's embrace


My late mother, Gertrude, was brought to Canada as a child prior to the Second World War. Canada was a welcoming home at that time for a family driven from their village of Zaslav in the Ukraine by violent pogroms. 

My father, Max, wasn’t so fortunate. The sole Jewish survivor of his small Polish shtetl, he lived through the brutalities of the Shoah. Murdered in Treblinka were his first wife and two young children as well as seven brothers and sisters.

During the war years, Canada instituted a heartless closed-door immigration policy, but reopened its borders to the stateless people of Europe after that, among them thousands of Jewish survivors like my father.

As the child of refugees, I understood one thing: they all had a story, from the insignificant to the heroic, from sadness, heartache and despair to elation and joy.

Last month, after almost three years of research and interviews, refugee advocate Ratna Omidvar and Ryerson researcher Dana Wagner launched their book Flight And Freedom: Stories Of Escape To Canada (Between the Lines, $29.95), retelling the complex, harrowing journeys of 30 individual refugees. 

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My father is one of them. Christine, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide, is another. What will strike the reader is both the common threads between all these stories and the stark differences.

On its surface her story is as different from my father’s Holocaust ordeal as you can imagine. Geographically, politically, in terms of people and places, the Rwandan genocide and the Holocaust seem to have little in common. 

Yet Christine’s life-over-death experience is familiar. As Hutu genocidaires were waging their ruthless mass murders of Tutsis and moderate Hutus, Christine, then a young child, experienced the slaughter of her father and brother. Through what my father used to call the necessary “1,000 miracles,” she and her mother escaped with their lives.

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Horror surrounds you in such evil times, and Christine explains all too well the way they coped. “Because [we] were trying to save our own life, we wouldn’t pay attention to what’s happening. We would just run.”

The story that has stayed with me most is that of the young Bedouin woman Sabreen. Brought up in a camp in southern Israel, she was a pariah within her tribe because her mother had given birth to her out of wedlock, heresy in the tightly bound Bedouin community. Her mother was murdered as a result, an “honour killing,” and Sabreen was suspect from the day she was born. 

Harsh physical abuse, followed by her father’s demand for a forced marriage, drove her to attempt suicide. Here a commonality between their stories made itself felt: as in my father’s case, death was cheated by happenstance. After her suicide attempt, with the help of Israeli friends, Sabreen made it to Tel Aviv and eventually to Canada, where her application for refugee status was approved.

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There is so much more to Sabreen’s story, and to all the others in Flight And Freedom. In the end, all the refugees and immigrants in this book share one collective conclusion – each is deeply grateful to Canada for embracing them and giving them back their dignity.

The time is right for this book. In the last decade, Canada’s heart has hardened toward refugees. It took a photograph of a young Syrian boy lying lifeless on a Mediterranean beach to remind us of our humanity and that we are ourselves a country of immigrants and refugees. We are obligated to help. If not now, when?

Bernie M. Farber is executive director of the Mosaic Institute.

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