The global number of people currently displaced from their home country—more than 50 million—is higher than at any time since World War II. Yet in recent years Canada has deported, denied, and diverted countless refugees. Is Canada a safe haven for refugees or a closed door?
In Flight and Freedom, Ratna Omidvar and Dana Wagner present a collection of thirty astonishing interviews with refugees, their descendants, or their loved ones to document their extraordinary, and sometimes harrowing, journeys of flight. The stories span two centuries of refugee experiences in Canada: from the War of 1812—where an escaped slave and her infant daughter flee the United States to start a new life in Halifax—to the War in Afghanistan—where asylum seekers collide with state scrutiny and face the challenges of resettlement.
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About the Author
Dana Wagner is Senior Research Associate at the Global Diversity Exchange leading the Hire Immigrants and Flight and Freedom programs. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, the Globe and Mail, and The National Post. She blogs for The Huffington Post.
Ratna Omidvar is the founding Executive Director of Global Diversity Exchange, an adjunct professor at Ryerson University, and a faculty member at Carleton University. She is a member of the Order of Ontario and the Order of Canada, recognizing her advocacy work on behalf of immigrants and for her devotion to reducing inequality in Canada.
Ratna Omidvar was born in India. She moved to Iran in 1975 to start life there with her Iranian partner. In 1981 she and her family (including an infant daughter) fled Iran and found a new home in Canada. Her own experiences of flight to freedom have been the foundation of her work. She has focused on articulating pathways to inclusion for immigrants and visible minorities in host societies, both in Canada and globally. Ratna is both a Member of the Order of Canada and Order of Ontario.
Dana Wagner is a senior researcher at Ryerson University. She studied journalism at Carleton University and global affairs at the University of Toronto. She has worked in Toronto, Ottawa, Hanoi and Nairobi.
Read an Excerpt
Flight and Freedom
Stories of Escape to Canada
By Ratna Omidvar, Dana Wagner
Between the LinesCopyright © 2015 Ratna Omidvar and Dana Wagner
All rights reserved.
As Told by Leslie Oliver
Standing in Halifax's Black Cultural Centre, Leslie Oliver gazes at a picture of his father, an Order of Canada recipient for his work furthering social justice and equality in Nova Scotia. There's also a picture of his activist lawyer uncle, retired Senator Donald Oliver, the first black man appointed to Canada's legislative upper chamber.
How could this remarkable family of achievers ever have been on the run? It's bewildering. But two hundred years ago, they were.
1814, Maryland, United States
Adeline Oliver, a seventeen-year-old black slave and her infant daughter, Laura, were hurrying through a dense forest in Maryland at a time when, throughout eastern North America, fighting raged between Britain and the fledgling United States. The war began in 1812.
Her husband, Moses Oliver, was already gone. The Olivers were runaway slaves, married, but the property of two different owners on separate estates. Now Adeline was fleeing with fourteen others to board a British ship anchored in the Potomac River. To avoid drawing attention to their escape, the Olivers split up. The plan was for Adeline and Laura to meet Moses later when their ship — like his — arrived in British North America, where the British government had promised they would be free settlers.
Though the United States had been a country for less than forty years when war broke out, the powerful British Navy struggled to blockade and control America's eastern waterways. The British knew that encouraging desertion by slaves could disrupt America's economy and battle strength. They were right. Some escapees chose to stay in America to fight against their former masters. Others, like the Olivers, slipped away to board ships bound for Halifax or Saint John.
More than two thousand free slaves landed in the Canadian Maritimes between September 1813 and August 1816. Some are named on the Halifax List, a Nova Scotia record of black refugees, reminiscent of an earlier British Navy document The Book of Negroes. On the Halifax List, written in a slanting cursive hand, are the names of Adeline, Moses, and Laura.
* * *
After 1814, Halifax, British North America
United now, the Olivers set out to build a free life. Somehow they scraped together enough money to buy a chunk of land in Lucasville on what a taxi driver will tell you used to be called Windsor Road. Like Nova Scotia's better known enclave Africville, its settlers were mostly poor and black.
To survive in Nova Scotia, free slaves did grueling work. Women sold their household and childcare skills; men sold their muscle in the shipyards and construction sites of the busy port city. To thrive, however, people like the Olivers had to work one full-time job for others, then find whatever spare time they could to work their own land.
Not everyone had the fortune to own a bit of property. Those who did, like Adeline and Moses, could cut timber for heat, raise animals for the market, and move food straight from land to table. But it was exhausting, finishing a full day's work only to go back to work on a rocky and mostly barren plot. Halifax was segregated, and fertile land was unavailable to black people.
Adeline gave birth to a second daughter and then a son in the new colony. Having native-born children, however, was no guarantee you were finally home. Three years after Adeline and Moses arrived, Lord Dalhousie, governor of Nova Scotia, asked the British government to remove the black population to the United States, or to the recently created settlement on the West African coast, called Freetown and imagined by some to be an oasis. The bid failed. A few years later, Dalhousie tried again (and again without success) to send them to Trinidad.
Endless work, poor land, botched expulsions ... and, of course, the experience of intolerance by the minority of 745 in a population of just over 11,000 in Halifax. But harder to bear, perhaps, was the tension within their community.
In Halifax in 1814, the black population included free slave refugees like Adeline and Moses, War of 1812 escapees. It included black Loyalists who had arrived several decades earlier during the American War of Independence. And, until slavery was abolished in British colonies in 1834, it included slaves. Every day in the dirt streets of Halifax, free men and women brushed up against them — and the dogged fact of slavery.
At this time, there was no single historical or cultural unifying force within Halifax's black population. Take the free slaves, with their eclectic lives stateside, in a city in Maryland, a farm in Virginia or a plantation in Georgia, who might have felt like strangers in this new northern colony. But cultures clash and regroup and grow. Across Nova Scotia, close-knit communities eventually sprang up, grafting together people whose torn roots were left behind over continents.
September 2013, Halifax, Canada
In the Halifax Black Cultural Centre on Main Street, Leslie Oliver, whose great-great-great-grandmother was Adeline Oliver, talks about how his mother had tracked down the history of Adeline and Moses on the British North American side. But their American past? It was sealed by war and time.
Until Leslie made a phone call in 2009.
Retired, Leslie now had time to reassemble the lives of his ancestors. He called the Maryland state archives, not expecting much. But a researcher returned his call.
"You won't believe what's on my desk," she said. Adeline Oliver was one of the biographies under development by the archives staff to mark the bicentennial of the War of 1812, and the file was bigger than most, thanks to Maryland court documents.
When the war ended in 1815, the British agreed to repay Americans for lost property. Owners could submit a claim for runaway slaves, and their estimated value had to be supported by witness affidavits. In the Maryland archives were affidavits on the Olivers. Adeline was described as healthy and aged between sixteen and nineteen years old. Laura was between nine and fifteen months. Witnesses thought Adeline was worth $300 or $450. Laura could sell for $50 or $100.
It was a jarring experience for Leslie, to see the dollar value on lives. "It really made you stop and think. It made it a lot more real," he says. "It certainly gave me a lot more admiration for what the preceding generations have done to try to get life stabilized."
Leslie Oliver was born in 1940 to William, son of Clifford, son of William, son of William, son of Adeline and Moses. That's six generations in Halifax, or seven including his two daughters. His two grandchildren would make eight, but they live in British Columbia.
Leslie has a copy of the will that shows Adeline's only son left no land to his son, also named William. Instead, William II perhaps opted to leave the plot to his four siblings while he settled on the grounds of Acadia University to work as a herdsman. Acadia once provided its students with homegrown food, but as the university modernized past animal husbandry, William rose to the position of head custodian of the buildings and grounds.
William's son, Clifford, succeeded him as head custodian. Though the work belonged on the fringe of academia, university life immersed Clifford and he passed a thirst for education to his children, including Leslie's father. This generation became the first of the line to attend university and Leslie's father was the first to graduate, a Bachelor of Arts and Divinity from Acadia. William, who took the first university job as a herdsman, died on the day of this first university graduation, but he died knowing the profound family achievement.
Leslie's parents raised their five sons to assume university was in their future so the relationship with Acadia continued. After an undergraduate degree in math from Acadia, Leslie worked in the infant field of computer programming. He returned to school and finished with a PhD in computer science from McGill. Acadia invited him back as a professor in 1985 and he taught there until his retirement.
"For me," Leslie says, "Moving to Acadia to teach, it was closing a big loop that had started with my great-grandfather going there as a herdsman." Leslie was not the only Oliver set on a university path by that decision. His uncle, Senator Donald Oliver, a lawyer and activist, became the first black man appointed to the Senate.
Today, Leslie is over seventy years old and he just switched to a MacBook. His research was once the stuff that led to a patented algorithm to detect heart tissue. Now he's interested in history and picked up where his mother's notes stopped. When she died, Leslie inherited the boxes of family history and began to digitize.
Leslie works in retirement at the Black Cultural Centre that was founded by his parents. Inside, you can stand at the centre of a circle of overhead banners, photos of the celebrated. Among them is Viola Desmond, the Canadian Rosa Parks who ignored the rules and took a white-only theatre seat; Richard Preston, a founder of the province's Baptist community; and William Hall, the first black man and Nova Scotian to receive a Victoria Cross. Leslie sketches their lives like a tour guide, still with wonder.
In another room is a photo of Leslie's mother surrounded by young girls. Poverty disproportionately affected the black community in the province for a long time. It still does todayand building girls' belief in a big future was her passion. Leslie recalls the many professionals, the women, who filled the pews at her funeral. On another wall is a photo of his father William with his high school hockey team. He only played the home games because travelling included hotel stays, and most hotel managers turned away black clients.
In 1984, Leslie's father became a member of the Order of Canada for his work on social justice and equality in Nova Scotia. The achievement had Leslie looking backwards, all the way to Adeline and Moses. "This is built on people who, for generations, did something that contributed to allowing you to develop and evolve," he says.
That's why history matters. "It's healthy for people to have some idea of their heritage, so they understand they're not alone, they didn't come from nothing."CHAPTER 2
Ottoman Empire (Turkey)
As Told by His Son, George Shirinian
1915, Geyve, Ottoman Empire (Turkey)
Posters appeared in the spring of 1915 across the Ottoman Empire with an order for Armenians to leave immediately. At gun point, they gathered whatever belongings they could carry at a moment's notice for a trip with no clear route or destination.
To the Young Turks still in charge of the crumbling empire, the Christian Armenians posed a threat to the state. Some Armenian nationalists had taken up arms against the empire and so the Young Turks, setting a precedent for skittish leaders of the coming century, declared that Armenians were not ethnic Turks. To "Turkify" the empire, Armenians had to leave, even though there was nowhere for them to go. Of course, there was a plan, and keeping to it, they died along the way.
All over the empire, across what is now Turkey, convoys of men, women, and children moved on foot, sometimes with donkeys and wagons, as Turkish escorts brutalized them at will. Beatings and theft were common. Some Armenians were raped or watched family dragged off to be raped, and many, ultimately, were killed. There are accounts of people being shot at close range, bayoneted, drowned, burned alive, and bludgeoned to death.
Mampre Shirinian was around five years old when his family left their village of Geyve on official orders. His uncle and brother would not survive the march. The night his uncle died, Mampre lay awake listening to his final breaths, by then a rasping wheeze. It was probably pneumonia, one of the diseases like typhus and dysentery that also threatened to wipe out the Armenians.
If they managed to guess the purpose of the march before setting out, some parents chose to quietly leave their children behind in Greek households. That is, until the Turkish authorities caught on and cut this line of support by broadcasting that hiding their fellow Christians would cost the good Greek neighbours their lives. Another option was an orphanage.
That's where Mampre arrived sometime between 1918 and 1923, at an orphanage in the capital Constantinople, present-day Istanbul. He survived part of his family's march, and remembered that bit, but he could never recall how he wound up in the capital. His home village, Geyve, is around 150 kilometres east of Constantinople, and sits on the old Silk Road linking China to the Mediterranean. It's possible Mampre moved along this historic route in the care of Christian missionaries, after his mother, desperate and with one of her sons already dead, gave him over. Mampre was one of many Armenian orphans with living parents, at least for a time. He had just one visit from his mother at the orphanage and for years after, heard nothing about her.
* * *
The events after Armenians left their homes on Turkish orders were later called genocide. In fact, it was the Armenian massacres that in part prompted a man named Raphael Lemkin to coin the word decades later. The expulsion, designed to destroy a whole people, eventually killed between one to 1.5 million Armenians by force or starvation and illness. Not even orphanages were safe. In a January 1916 memo, the Turkish interior minister wrote:
We hear that certain orphanages which have been opened receive also the children of Armenians. Whether this is done through ignorance of our real purpose, or through contempt of it, the Government will regard the feeding of such children or any attempt to prolong their lives as an act entirely opposed to its purpose, since it considers the survival of these children as detrimental.
Before long, the minister's policy trickled down into effect. Mampre remembered one incident in Constantinople, when he ran into Turkish soldiers while outside his orphanage foraging for extra food. When the soldiers saw the wiry kid, they taunted him — an Armenian, a Christian, and uncircumcised. They threatened to do the job in the street, before Mampre managed to sprint away, trailed by guffaws of laughter.
Whenever possible, the missionaries moved children outside the country and Mampre next landed at an orphanage on the Greek island of Corfu. He left without saying goodbye to his family or knowing if anyone was still alive.
All this took place as Turkey, along with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, fought the Allied countries in the First World War. The Armenian massacres could have gone largely unnoticed, lost in the shadow of the bigger, global battle. But some Allied governments did react and two responses involved Mampre.
The mayor of London, England, created the Lord Mayor's Fund to rescue and resettle orphaned Armenian children, and aided by that money, the Canadian government, with a handful of others, agreed to import a small number of the children from orphanages in Greece.
The distant killing of Christians found a way into Canadian headlines, even during war. At first, Canada was reluctant to receive any refugees, especially non-Anglo Saxons (a senior bureaucrat in Ottawa predicted refugees would pose a "permanent problem"), but church and relief groups lobbied for a response to the crisis. They argued that money alone wouldn't help. People needed out.
The lobby won over the government, and the first group of 50 Armenian boys arrived in Canada by ship, the Minedosa, on July 1, 1923. A second group of 40 boys docked in Halifax on September 30, 1924, after sailing on the Brage from the Greek port Piraeus. In Halifax, they boarded a train to Georgetown, Ontario. They were orphans, mostly children, some had survived a desert march or an overcrowded, filthy freighter from Turkey to Greece, and some had witnessed the slaughter of their families. There were 109 boys by the end of 1924.
In the second group of arrivals was fourteen-year-old Mampre.
October 1924, Georgetown, Canada
Their new home, at a time when many Canadians still lived in the country, was a two-hundred-acre farm in Georgetown. The newly formed Armenian Relief Association of Canada purchased the farm on behalf of the boys under a program designed to house, educate, work, and launch them as Canadians. But a very specific type of Canadian. They would all be trained as farmers. There was no precedent for this refugee project, so it was termed "Canada's noble experiment" and the children became "the Georgetown boys."
When Mampre arrived at the farm in the second cohort, the fifty boys already there were old hands in Canadian ways of eating porridge and using flush toilets. He adopted their habits. The days were filled with classes on regular school subjects, plus farm chores or work in the kitchen or dormitories. The boys played, ate, and slept at the farm — always supervised by the live-in superintendents and teachers, some seconded from Ontario public schools. They even had free visits from local doctors and dentists.
Excerpted from Flight and Freedom by Ratna Omidvar, Dana Wagner. Copyright © 2015 Ratna Omidvar and Dana Wagner. Excerpted by permission of Between the Lines.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPreface: Ratna Omidvar,
Introduction: Alan Broadbent,
Who Is a Refugee?,
1 Adeline Oliver, United States,
2 Mampre Shirinian, Ottoman Empire (Turkey),
3 Loly Rico, El Salvador,
4 Ken (Khanh) Do, Vietnam,
5 Hodan Ali, Somalia,
6 Claudio Durán, Chile,
7 Rabbi Erwin Schild, Germany,
8 Randy Singh, Guyana,
9 Marguerite Nyandwi, Burundi,
10 Andrew Hidi, Hungary,
11 Sorpong Peou, Cambodia,
12 Tarun, Sri Lanka,
13 Yodit Negusse, Ethiopia,
14 Chairuth (Chai) Bouphaphanh, Laos,
15 Zafar Iravan, Iran,
16 Samnang Eam, Cambodia,
17 Marko, Bosnia and Herzegovina,
18 Iren Hessami Koltermann, Iran,
19 Anwar Arkani, Myanmar,
20 Elvis, Namibia,
21 Humaira, Afghanistan,
22 Joseph, Sierra Leone,
23 Christine, Rwanda,
24 Mie Tha Lah, Myanmar,
25 Max Farber, Poland,
26 Shabnam, Afghanistan,
27 Robi Botos, Hungary,
28 Karim Teja, Uganda,
29 Avtar Sandhu, India,
30 Sabreen, Israel,
Then and Now: Would They Get In Today? Peter Showler,