Spirit Quest

 

Lives left behind, lives still to live

By The Rev. Dr. Hanns F. Skoutajan
True North Perspective

A few days ago, on a very hot and humid day, I found myself ensconced before a microphone in my study. I also had a telephone against  my ear in order to hear my interviewer in far away London, England engage me in conversation while being recorded for Outlook, a program for the BBC World Service.

It all began with a letter to the editor of the Ottawa Citizen (June 25, 011). In my epistle I congratulated the members of Kitchissippi United Church in Ottawa on their program of refugee sponsorship.
 
I also wrote about my own experience as a refugee when still a child. This letter caught the eye of a radio journalist for the BBC. Thus I found myself on that morning recounting my personal experiences as a refugee and opining about the impact that immigrants had on the country that has adopted us. I strongly believe that the effect millions of people from almost every continent of the world has been a very positive one. 
 
Travelling by public transportation in any of our cities, one invariably encounters  what some refer to as “visible minorities,” a term that I am not particularly fond of — besides, they are hardly to be considered minorities any more.

 

 

 
Talking with the BBC!
 
Listen to the Rev. Hanns Skoutajan on the BBC World Service programme, Outlook, in conversation with host Matthew Bannister. Dr. Skoutajan discusses his eperiences as a refugee and his later work meeting newcomers and encouraging refugee sponsoships.
 
Click here to listen to the program, or paste http://www.bbc.co.uk/search/?q=skoutajan into your browser and look for programs dated June 22 and June 25, 2011.
Canada has distinguished itself as striving to be a mosaic rather than a melting pot as our neighbour to the south endeavours to be. We do not expect our newcomers to adhere to a Canadian stereotype but rather to add their distinctive qualities and characteristics to enhancing what Canada is.
 
When you see someone whom you suspect was not born in this country you need to be aware that this person has a story. Oft times these accounts are horrendous, escapes from hunger and abuse, homelessness and hopeless situations. Most of these people, no less so than those born and bred in this land, have made great contributions.  They have had to make a living in unfamiliar jobs, often more than one at a time, and learn a new language. Those first years have undoubtedly been difficult.
 
The news story that I had responded to in my letter to the editor told about a woman, Molly Kokole and her husband and five children, two sets of twins, who had been jailed in Sudan. She had managed to bribe her way out of jail and with her family fled to Egypt. Life in Egypt was very difficult but she managed to get a secretarial job in an Anglican church. While there through the ecumenical church network she was adopted in Ottawa. Only recently had she found out that her husband was still alive in Africa.
 
Although she had had secretarial training she was now doing office cleaning. She had become a Canadian citizen and her children were getting an education, one was in university hoping to become a medical doctor and eventually working with Medicin Sans Frontier.
 
Twenty years after my arrival in Canada (1957), the tables were turned. I was now one of those who were doing the welcoming of new arrivals at Pier 21 in Halifax, the very port where I had initially arrived in Canada. My time with them was but a brief encounter before they boarded  a “boat train” as I had done, bound for Montreal, Toronto or further west.
 
In that hour or so I gained a glimpse into the life that they had left behind. There were of course anxieties about the future. Many of them had been fortunate to have been sponsored by congregations and organizations as did Molly Kokole, who would guarantee to look after them  for their first year.
 
A congregation that I served in Toronto undertook similar sponsorships including a family of 12 from Laos. Another congregation, The Church of St. John the Evangelist in downtown Ottawa has sponsored over 40 Bhutanese refugees. This story is often repeated from coast to coast.
 
Undoubtedly there are also negative stories and some may even have sought to return home or have been deported. But those are very few indeed. Below are some statistic about refugees and our Canadian response.
  • 15.1 million: Number of refugees worldwide at beginning of 2011
  • 80: Percentage of the world’s refugees living in developing nations. Asia hosts more than half of the global refugee population, followed by Africa
  • 34,050: Number of asylum claims made in Canada in 2009
  • 10: Percentage drop in asylum claims made in Canada since the tightening of visa requirements for Mexico and elsewhere in 2009
  • 50,908: number of refugee claims made in Canada that are still before the Immigration and Refugee Board in 2010
  • 24,693: Number of refugees settled in Canada in 2010, including 7,265 government-assisted refugees, 4,833 privately sponsored refugees, 9,038 asylum-seekers and 3,557 refugee dependants
Much went  through my mind as I sat in front of the microphone and endeavored in the few minutes of broadcast time to deliver a picture that is so much a part of me and of this country.
 
My story, I was told, would be heard around the world through the World Service of the BBC. Every day a new human interest story is aired, all of them give evidence of a  spirit alive.
 
There is a spirit that heartens us whether we are newcomers or among those who receive and welcome them as they search for a new life in a new land.

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