Series of my columns published by 2016 by The Advocate newspaper in Athabasca.
We each have a picture in our mind of a refugee. Perhaps it is an individual you know personally, or a current media meme, or a historic refugee crisis that resonated with you when you were coming of age. For each one of you reading this today there are thousands more individuals who are refugees, forcibly displaced from their homes. The magnitude of the refugee crisis can at times seem incomprehensible. Over the next several weeks, this column will provide a refuge from the media deluge on refugees. Using a few drops of information, this column aims to broaden to the perceptions of the current refugee crises around the world. Along with Einstein’s refugee story, you’ll find stories of other famous refugees here. Over the next week, when you come across a story about a refugee, picture the individual as Albert Einstein, and then ask yourself, “Does that change how I hear the story?”
I will wager that most of us when we think of “refugees” don’t picture Europeans as those fleeing their homes and seeking asylum. But the refugee crisis was so significant following WWII that the sixty countries comprising the UN at the time responded with compassion and struck a temporary initiative called the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) with a three year mandate to address the European refugee problem and then disband. Following this, Canada took in Estonian, Hungarian, Dutch, and other European refugees. Over the decades the sad continuation of war has escalated the number of people forcibly displaced from their homes around the world, making the need for the UNHCR to become a permanent initiative of the international efforts of the United Nations. In 2016, the UNHCR serves individuals of all religions in over 123 countries. The faces and the languages refugees speak have changed over the last sixty-six years, but the need for a compassionate response remains the same. Lest we forget.
If all the forcibly displaced people of the world made up one nation, it would be the 24th largest in the world. Picture all types of Canadians: newborns, seniors, teens, professionals, students, doctors, cabbies, dentists, dancers, janitors, painters, clerks, musicians, pastors, farmers, teachers, geniuses, and so on. Now picture all 35 million of them forcibly displaced from their homes. Hard to image, yes? Let’s consider stretching your imagination further by almost doubling this population of diversely talented caring sons and daughters; mothers and fathers; brothers and sisters; aunts, uncles, and cousins. This is one way to try to grasp the magnitude of the UNHCR estimation that nearly 60 million people were refugees, internally displaced persons or asylum seekers at the end of 2014. For more information visit the UNHCR site.
Award goes to… The People of Canada!
In 1986, the People of Canada were awarded the Nansen Refugee Award for extraordinary service to the forcibly displaced. We are the only national group to receive this honor since its inception in 1954. You’ll find the stories of all the recipients here.
Other individual and group recipients include royalty from The Netherlands, Spain, and Nepal; Catholic, Lutheran, Jewish, and Jesuit religious leaders; international humanitarian organizations; European fundraisers; women supporting female survivors in Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Somali; an Italian opera singer raising funds and awareness; a Maltese lawyer advocating for the rights of refugees; a Japanese optometrist matching more than 100,000 pairs of glasses with refugees who need them; and a British photojournalist who travelled the world documenting and publicizing the consequences of war on individuals, one photo at a time. The people of Canada have a long history and tradition for compassionately responding to humanitarian emergencies. Like the other recipients, this is achieved through individuals engaging in one small caring act at a time.
Both sides of my family have lived in Canada so many generations that our family’s immigration story is lost. This may be why I am so moved by hearing the stories of other families. The individual risks and collective achievements, the endurance and personal resolve of those who came here seeking a fresh start are the basis for the narratives that built the richness of Canada’s history. A friend, whom I met when we both worked in a bakery/restaurant, came to Canada as a refugee with no family, studied nursing while working as a baker, then studied medicine while working as a nurse, and has since become a practicing medical doctor in Canada. I bet you have a friend or family member with a hard working immigrant story. This year thousands of families who were once refugees, will resettle in Canada. Once they touch Canadian soil they will be “home,” albeit a new home. They will no longer be refugees. These new families will begin the next chapter of their stories that will be written over the coming years and will be told for decades to come by their friends and family.