World Refugee Day – Stories
Canada resettles refugees to save lives and provide stability to people fleeing persecution who have no hope of relief. Learn about people who came to Canada as refugees to build new lives.
Stories of former refugees
Wahlay and Daisy
Wahlay Ray and his wife, Daisy Aung, feared they would never escape the sweltering heat of the Mae La refugee camp, one of the largest for Karen refugees straddling the Thai-Burmese border. But today, Wahlay and Daisy have found a new home in the picturesque northern Ontario city of Thunder Bay.
Wahlay and Daisy came to Canada as privately sponsored refugees from Burma in 2002. The couple belong to the persecuted Karen minority in Burma. They were forced into a refugee camp after their village was burned to the ground.
Life in the refugee camp was harsh. “
Sanitation was very poor and health care was limited,” says Wahlay. “
There is a generation of Karen children who have no knowledge of what lies outside the barbed wire surrounding the camp. They’re like caged birds.”
When Wahlay and Daisy arrived in Thunder Bay, they were welcomed with open arms by their sponsors and church.
They have built a rich life for themselves and their three children. Daisy is a full-time Karen interpreter and has been very active helping family members and friends with applications to privately sponsor refugees. Wahlay is a settlement worker at the Thunder Bay Multicultural Association. He is also a pastor at the Hosanna Karen Christian Fellowship and is working towards his Master of Divinity from Carey Theological College. “
It took me seven years to be able to come to Canada and another seven years to be able to continue my education. But this was my biggest dream for coming to Canada.”
In his different roles, Wahlay supports newcomers, youth and church leaders as they integrate into this new society.
Wahlay says, “
Everything I have, including my family, freedom, opportunity and my abundant life here in Canada is truly a gift of God.”
Remzi Cej was 15 years old when he and his parents were forced out of war-torn Kosovo in 1999. They then spent over a year living in seven different refugee camps in Albania. Now, Remzi has become a Rhodes Scholar and is Chair of the Newfoundland and Labrador Human Rights Commission.
It was a heart-breaking escape from Kosovo. His family began the long journey by walking toward the Albanian border, only to be turned back repeatedly by Serbian paramilitary forces. They walked more than 270 kilometres in a week, with thousands of others. Many were lost along the way. A year before their ordeal, Remzi’s brother had escaped to Türkiye. They did not hear from him for years until a chance encounter with a journalist reunited the family.
Remzi says, “
We came so close to losing our lives or disappearing the way many innocent people had. In that environment, you really appreciate the value of life and every moment with family. It’s a feeling I will never let go.”
Remzi’s family was selected for resettlement by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. When told that Canada had accepted them and that three families in a city called St. John’s wanted them to come there, he remembers thinking, “
What kind of country must this be where total strangers want to welcome us to their community?”
Remzi has achieved what most can only dream of. He has a graduate degree from Oxford, speaks seven languages and has a world vision equaled only by his passion for human rights. He is dedicated to making a difference and has received numerous accolades for his efforts to date.
The first sign of feeling like you belong is people you don’t know extending a helping hand when you need it. Thanks to our sponsors, I felt welcome from the very first moment my family came to this beautiful province. As I prepare to welcome a refugee I have co-sponsored to St. John’s, I’m pleased to be giving someone else who is fleeing persecution and violence an opportunity to belong to a community once again.”
For some refugees coming to Canada who do not yet speak English or French, everyday life can be challenging because of language barriers.
Fortunately, interpreters like Karny Koshkarian are here to help. Karny is a high school student at John Cabot Catholic Secondary School in Mississauga, Ontario. She came to Canada as a privately sponsored Syrian refugee with her parents and brother on January 7, 2016. They are of Armenian descent, and were born and raised in Damascus, Syria.
Fluent in Armenian, Arabic, and English, Karny was swiftly recruited to work as an interpreter to welcome other Syrian refugees at Toronto Pearson International Airport. “
My dad’s friend in Montreal told him that they needed interpreters for Armenian and Arabic at Pearson Airport. I sent my resume to MCIS Language Services and I was hired in February 2016. If MCIS needed my help, I would be there every night to help people the same way I was helped when I came to Canada,” she says.
As an interpreter, Karny spent a lot of time comforting other refugees. “
Leaving home, friends, family, society – it’s very difficult, especially when being forced to leave. I know what they went through. I enjoyed the smile on their faces when I spoke in their native language. They felt relieved and that they belonged here. The most important thing to me was that they felt safe.”
Chai Bouphaphanh was born in Vientiane, Laos in 1967, and lived there until 1978. Due to the Vietnam War and repercussions in their country, Chai’s parents made the difficult decision to leave. After living in a refugee camp in Nongkhai, Thailand for two years, Chai and his family were privately sponsored by the Drake Mennonite Church to come to Canada. On a very blustery February 1, 1980, the family arrived in the small town of Drake, Saskatchewan.
It was initially a difficult adjustment to life in Canada, particularly because of the cold weather and new language. Chai says it was sometimes hard to balance his Laotian culture with his new Canadian home, crediting his parents with understanding the need to meld both cultures together. Overall, Chai enjoyed growing up in Saskatchewan, playing hockey in the winter, and tennis and soccer in the summer. “
I love the cold weather now!”
Chai is currently a freelance photographer. His love of photography, volunteering, and travel has led him to do assignments for Room to Read in Northern Laos, the Mennonite Central Committee Canada, Regina Open Door Society, and Macdonald Youth Services in Winnipeg.
Chai’s goal for the future is to continue to make people smile through his passion for photography. To this end, two of his photographs were selected for National Geographic’s “My Shot” to be included in its library archive of stock photography. He is also very proud to be part of the new book Flight and Freedom: Stories of Escape to Canada as well as a project with the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 called Canada: Day 1 to celebrate the country’s 150th anniversary in 2017.
Chai’s family recently celebrated 36 years in Canada. “
We are living in the best place in the world. I want to say thank you to Canada for giving us the freedom to live and an amazing place to call home.”
Leaving your family, home and friends is always heartbreaking.
For one year, Safwan, his wife and three children lived in fear and panic as bombs exploded around their home in Homs, Syria. Every day they had to risk their lives to get food from the few grocery markets still open in Homs. And, Safwan barely escaped being shot while fleeing Syria to the relative safety of Lebanon.
Fortunately, the Government of Canada accepted Safwan and his family in January 2016 as government-assisted refugees.
I didn’t know anything about Canada when I first arrived in Toronto. COSTI Immigrant Services, funded by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, gave me an overview of my new country, helped me find housing, get furniture and housing insurance, and took me and my family to the doctor. I am thankful to the Government of Canada for getting me on my feet. And, the services COSTI provided were in Arabic! I was so happy that someone was speaking to me in my native language,” Safwan says.
One day, Safwan was shopping with a friend at Adonis Supermarket in Scarborough. The store manager, Hani Tawil, heard him speaking the Syrian Arabic dialect at the cash register and offered him a job on the spot. Adonis Supermarket has an in-store bakery that produces fresh pita bread, as well as offering such Middle Eastern specialties as manakeesh, lahmajin, safiha and kibeh. It was a perfect fit because Safwan worked as a baker back home in Syria.
Hani is a Syrian immigrant who wants to help refugees get their first job to build their lives in Canada. To date, he has hired almost 60 Syrian refugees.
Safwan started working at Adonis Supermarket in May 2016, and now makes fresh pitas daily.
I feel more at ease now that I am working at Adonis with others who speak Arabic.” Safwan came to Canada speaking no English. Working at Adonis Supermarket allows him to interact with co-workers and customers in his native language.
Now that he has a job to support his family, Safwan’s next goal is to improve his English so that one day he can open his own business.
Recognizing students' and schools' efforts to #WelcomeRefugees
Across Canada, students, teachers and schools have shown leadership in their communities by helping to #WelcomeRefugees. Read about some of their efforts to create welcoming environments for refugees resettling in Canada.
Raising funds for refugee integration in Regina
Left to right: Hannah Perkins, Sheren Jahanpour and Duncan Willis
Moved by coverage of the Syrian refugee crisis and wanting to help, Sheldon-Williams Collegiate in Regina, Saskatchewan launched a five-month campaign dubbed the Welcome Home Project. The funds were raised to assist the settlement and integration of newcomers through the Regina Open Door Society.
The high school easily surpassed its fundraising goal of $15,000, ultimately raising $16,806 through pledges and T-shirt sales and holding a 24-hour Awake-a-thon in February.
Community members, staff and students came together to raise money by participating in a jam-packed schedule of bubble soccer, a dance, live bands, a talent show, gaming tournaments, Fear Factor and Master Chef-style challenges, hockey, basketball, arcade rooms, a scavenger hunt and trivia competitions. We are proud to be Spartans making a difference,” said Leadership Teacher and Advisor, Samantha Taylor.
The students’ efforts resulted in positive media coverage as well as recognition from the Government of Saskatchewan, with stories highlighting the commitment of these youth leaders to help refugees integrate.
It was an exciting opportunity to be involved in making a difference in so many people’s lives,” noted Duncan Willis, Grade 12 student and Student Leadership Council President.
To me, the Welcome Home Project represented how our community came together to help people resettle and create a better life for themselves. It was a life-changing experience,” said Lucas Kuffner, Grade 12 Student.
Food and fellowship to welcome refugees
Nothing says welcome better than a shared meal.
In April, the staff and parents of Marion McVeety Elementary School in Regina, Saskatchewan hosted a supper to welcome 40 new Syrian students and their families to the community. In attendance were teachers and staff, the Parent Council, members of the Regina Open Door Society and Regina School Board employees and trustees. Organizers arranged for transportation to bring families to the event and interpreters to assist with conversation. Along with the main course, teachers and school staff prepared desserts traditional to their own cultures.
The event was an incredible evening with wonderful food, plenty of smiles and positive connections made among staff, community members, students and their parents,” says Karin Leusink, on behalf of the event organizers.
Through interpreters, people introduced each other, shared stories and talked about family members still in Syria. The parents also shared their hopes and dreams for their children now that they are in Canada.
With the participants communicating through basic English, broad smiles and warm handshakes, the evening touched everyone in ways that could not have been imagined when planning started. Karin summed things up: “
The evening was truly a gift of fellowship and connection, reminding us all of the importance of walking this path together.”
Technology meets humanitarian goals
Left to right: Teacher Jennifer MacDonald and the United Utopians: Rachel Beechinor, Nicole Fonseca, Golshid Z Emami, Jasmine Yang, Mackenzie Hall
A group of teens from Rockridge Secondary School in West Vancouver, British Columbia has teamed up with a local high-tech company, Appnovation, to create a user-friendly app to ease integration for newcomers in Vancouver.
As teen Nicole Fonseca explains, “
My team and I came up with our mobile app idea of helping new refugees integrate easily and efficiently into Canadian society because we wanted to tackle an issue that existed within both our local and global community.”
The app, to be called Hello, will provide newcomers with essential information about specific needs in Vancouver, such as food, transit, money, and emergency situations. It will also include translations into Arabic and currency conversion. A prototype is in development and plans are to offer the app for free.
Nicole is part of a team of five called the United Utopians who worked together to complete the project, which included pitching the initial idea, conducting research, writing a business plan, consulting with refugee organizations and refugee newcomers, and designing and coding the app.
United Utopians developed the app as part of a 12-week world-wide app-coding and entrepreneurship competition. Hosted this year by Simon Fraser University’s (SFU) Faculty of Applied Sciences, the competition seeks to foster entrepreneurship in girls by having them create mobile apps to address community problems. The team took first place at the local SFU judging event in the high school category.
Throughout this process, we experienced many moments of inspiration,” says Nicole. “
As we finished the design of Hello, we were hungry for real feedback, so I met with a recent newcomer to the Lower Mainland. What a profound experience to meet someone who we were trying to impact. Not only was he welcoming of us, but he was grateful for our care. It is opportunities such as these competitions that open the doors between communities.”
Practical gifts organized by students help welcome locally settled refugees
It takes time, effort and care to put together 300 boxes of practical items. However, that’s just what students and staff at L.A. Matheson Secondary School in Surrey, British Columbia, did recently as a special project to welcome refugee newcomers in the wake of the Syrian refugee crisis.
The care packages grew out of discussions by the Global Issues Club, with students and social studies teacher Annie Ohana seeking to make a difference in the community.
“We wanted to show students and families, whoever they were and whatever school they would eventually end up in, that we were happy to have them arrive and wanted to provide a proper and positive welcome to Canada. The fact that they may not come to our school specifically was of no concern; the wider the impact, the better,” says Annie.
The care packages were sponsored by individual students and teachers, classes as a whole and community members through both cash donations and the purchase of supplies by sponsors with their own funds. The BC Teachers’ Federation also stepped in with a grant of $1,000.
The care packages contained school supplies, household items, toiletries, winter accessories and a primer on learning English. Also included was a helpful list of local services and contact information, personalized letters of welcome and a copy of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Books on Canada, Canadian flags and even hockey pucks with the Team Canada logo gave the boxes a distinctly Canadian touch.
Boxes were distributed to individual families and organizations such as the Muslim Food Bank Association, the Welcome Centre and the Muslim Association of Canada. Other boxes were distributed to transition houses in the lower mainland, so the original project expanded beyond refugee newcomers to include other vulnerable people living in poverty or in challenging life situations.
School principal Paulo Sarmento notes, “The response has been amazing. We now have students in our schools who received some of those boxes, and they have found the transition to be just that little bit easier. The Welcome Centre staff mentioned all of the hugs and thank yous they received as families received their boxes. Every organization that we provided care packages to has told us of the positive impact they have had. To wrap up the project, we held a dinner for those who sponsored boxes and some of the new students who received the boxes and their families as well.”
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