Refugee Day commemorated in Saskatoon
By Anne-Marie Hughes
SASKATOON — This year’s World Refugee Day was marked June 22 in Saskatoon, with a program at The Refinery.
John Perry, moderator for the evening event and president of the United Nations Association in Canada, Saskatoon branch, explained that World Refugee Day, held annually around June 20, “is a commemoration and not a celebration because it is never a cause for celebration when people are forced to leave the village, city or place they are born.”
The Saskatoon event was sponsored by the United Nations group and by World University Services of Canada to highlight the experiences and challenges of refugees both before and after they reach safety in Canada.
While new federal legislation affecting refugees was definitely on the minds of many in attendance, the focus of the program was on the personal journeys of a panel of four refugees, who each spoke of their struggles.
The event did not single out one country but had panelists from all over the world. Refugees from Burma, Rwanda, South Sudan and Afghanistan were represented. All expressed the fears they were living under in the country of origin, the hope they had in coming to Canada and the unthought-of obstacles they faced arriving in Saskatoon.
Hsa Wah, a refugee from Burma, talked about living in a refugee camp in Thailand for 12 years. Despite the hardships and lack of resources in the camp, she describes herself as happy there after the experience of Burma.
“The military burn villages and destroy farmland. There was shooting, killing and rape. The Burmese live in fear. We walked for weeks in the jungle to get to Thailand. We couldn’t cook, as that would make smoke and the soldiers would see where we were. In the camps, we had a house and a church. It was all I knew and I thought I would live there always.” She joined the other panelists in recalling the exact day they found out they could come to Canada.
Jean Nepo Murwanashyaka was in his own country of Rwanda when war broke out and he moved country by country, arriving in China and eventually coming to Canada. The fighting left many broken. “People lost themselves, who they are. They walked thought tropical forests in fear for their lives. Some were lost in the jungle,” he recounted. “You can’t even talk about (it), really if you haven’t been one. Until you become one, you don’t even know what the word refugee really means.”
Murwanashyaka also talked about how his faith had helped him through the process. “I spend a lot of time studying the Bible,” he said. “Adam and Eve: were they not refugees who had to leave their home of birth? God has used refugees often to spread his word.”
After teaching university for 17 years, Sangin Niazi, found herself leaving Afghanistan with four children when she could no longer work and her daughters could not go to school.
She spent four years in Russia with no papers and no status, making it impossible to work and support a family other than receiving the small support the UN supplies. “My 11-year-old daughter didn’t know the language, so she couldn’t go to school in her grade and they wouldn’t let her go to school in Grade 1 to learn the language because she was too old.”
They had just received word they could come to Canada when the terrorist
attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 happened, and caused more delays.
Nathaniel Deng left South Sudan in 2001 and didn’t reach Canada until Aug. 22, 2010. Deng spent the nine years and four months in Kenya awaiting information on where he would be able to live on a permanent basis. World University Services of Canada became his sponsor and were key in helping him deal with the initial challenges of being a refugee in Saskatchewan.
From the beginning, volunteers met him at the airport, gave him a place to stay and helped with the initial paper work to get a social insurance number and a bank card. “These are small things an individual can do to help a refugee,” explained Deng.