Refugees: stories of courage and resilience

Friday, June 14, 2013

Canada has offered refugee protection to over 700,000 individuals since the Second World War. Among them, we find the stories of men, women and children who arrived to this country as boat people, others who came here fleeing the central American crisis, or as war resisters from the neighbouring US. Political refugees, refugees of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities and others fleeing persecution and fearing for their lives have also found their way to Canada when searching for a place to find “sanctuary.” I am also one of those 700,000 individuals who were granted protection since the Second World War. 

At the CMHR, we will explore some of these stories and present them in an exhibit dedicated to refugees. So far, I’ve had the chance to conduct oral histories interviews with refugees from countries such as Vietnam, Guatemala, Iran, Mexico, Hungary and Kosovo. These contributors to the exhibit have shared their amazing stories of courage and resilience. They have also provided us with photographs that will be used to complete the media production that will be in the exhibit.


The Bui Family

This photo was taken moments before the Bui family left the refugee camp in Indonesia where they spent over six month before arriving in Canada.
(Photo Courtesy of the Bui family) 

There is a long-standing tradition in many cultures of offering refuge to those fleeing persecution. In Europe, during the Middle Ages, people could seek sanctuary in a church and giving sanctuary was considered a sacred act. Loyalists and pacifists (including Mennonites and Quakers) fled to Canada during the American Revolution. Escaped slaves and free blacks also fled the US and were given protection in Canada. Although there have always been people fleeing oppression, it wasn't until after the Second World War that world governments recognized the need to create formal legal obligations for countries to accept refugees. Prior to the Second World War there was no legal distinction between immigrants and refugees, and even today many people are unsure of the difference between the two.

 Khanh Kim Bui
Khanh Kim Bui speaks of her experience leaving Vietnam with her husband and two children as boat people and their arrival in Canada. November 24, 2011 (Toronto)

In 1986, Canada was awarded the Nansen medal by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for its contribution to the protection of refugees. In recent years, Canada has enjoyed a relatively strong reputation as a welcoming country for refugees. However, in the past, this has not always been the case. We just need to look back to the “voyage of the damned,” when the S.S. St. Louis was not allowed to land on the shores of Nova Scotia. The “refugee experience” has never been a consistent one in Canada and current practices, immigration laws and policies are questioned by many human rights activists and scholars. They affirm that while many groups have been welcomed and have successfully integrated into Canadian society, others are still sent back to their home countries, where they might suffer persecution or the danger of being executed upon their return. Others have experienced discrimination and a rather difficult, if not unsuccessful, process of integration once they have been admitted to Canada. 

On December 4, 2000, the United Nations General Assembly decided that, as of 2001, June 20th would be recognized as World Refugee Day. The year 2001 marked the 50th anniversary of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, which sets out the fundamental concepts for international refugee protection. Each year, the UNHCR announces a theme for World Refugee Day. In 2013, the focus is on the impact of war on families and the core message is “One family torn apart by war is too many.” Individuals and community groups are encouraged to mark the day by attending a local World Refugee Day event, watching and sharing World Refugee Day videos, and raising awareness for refugees on social media.

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