From one refugee to another: What you need to know about Canada

Remzi Cej, Globe & Mail, 19 November 2015.

Welcome to Canada. After waiting a very long time, perhaps in Lebanon or Turkey or Jordan, you have made it to a country where you will begin living with dignity once again. Welcome to Canada – I feel like saying it again, because it’s going to be surreal.

Many Canadians across the country have taken to streets in communities big and small to call on our federal government to bring you to safety in Canada.

Sixteen years ago, Canadians urged the federal government to airlift Kosovar refugees from overcrowded refugee camps in Macedonia and Albania to communities across this country, during a time when ethnic cleansing turned 80 per cent of Kosovo’s population into refugees. My parents and I landed in St. John’s on a foggy, cold October afternoon. I still have the plane ticket. I remember fearing the Customs official, checking my Red Cross travel documents. Instead of denying us entry, he smiled and said, “Welcome to Canada.”

We were greeted by some of the friendliest people we had met, whose hugs and warm Tim Hortons coffee made us feel better. Within hours of arriving in Canada, these kind strangers showed me what is at the core of their national values: to give those who need a hand up and to expect only respect in return.

That, my new neighbour, is the society you are about to join, and one that I am proud to call my own.

Some Canadians may wonder why you would want to leave your region of the world to go so far away from home. They don’t realize that being in a refugee camp is to be in a perpetual state of limbo – you can’t find meaningful work, pursue your education, or build a future.

All you want is stability and an opportunity to start living again. Six months after coming to Canada, I was volunteering for six different organizations, working in two jobs, and still serving as my mother’s personal interpreter while she studied English. Since escaping the war, I have had so much life in me that not taking advantage of my freedom and opportunities to advance in society would have been a loss to my community.

Once you come to Canada, you can begin thinking about the kind of future you want to build. As my parents and I settled in a rental apartment when we arrived, we could not have dreamt of the future we would build here of creating a home in the place we only knew by the people we met at its airport on our arrival day, and of having the freedom to travel, study and work in Canada and beyond. By supporting me during my studies and my personal development, this country invested in me as it did for those born here – perhaps receiving that support without distinction was the most pleasant gift of coming to Canada.

While most Canadians are happy you’re coming here, your refugee status is making some people distrustful of your identity. Some Canadians may think you are bringing violence with you, and don’t see that you are here exactly because you want to escape conflict. Much of that comes from some Canadians’ inability to relate to your experience – some read the news and worry about 25,000 strangers coming to their country. They don’t know that since Sept. 11, 2001, the United States took in over 740,000 refugees, and yet of those, no one was even accused of domestic terrorism.

My dear new neighbour, loss defines so much of your recent past: Everything you and your family worked hard to build is gone. Your family members may have been killed, may now be in detention, perhaps, being tortured in overcrowded prisons, or worse yet, they may be missing – believe me, I understand what not knowing is like, and let me assure you, you will not be alone.

My mother began and ended each day by saying my brother’s name while he was missing for nearly six years. But fellow Canadians helped us look for him and ultimately helped us convince the federal government to bring him to Canada.

Perhaps the most important lesson I need to share with you: Be yourself in every sense of the word – whether you are Muslim, Christian, spiritual or an atheist; straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered; whether your beliefs are conservative or liberal. Canada is a place that thrives on diversity – and has learned hard lessons about suppressing our differences. Be yourself – and add to Canada’s greatness.

Opportunities are before you, and there are many community causes waiting for your help. As people help you, you must reach out to others too. As I discovered, not only will you meet other community members, but you will do something Canadians consider a defining characteristic of our identity – helping one another, building a better future.

Welcome to your new home. I’ll be waiting with a double-double in hand.

Remzi Cej came to Canada in 2000 as a teenager, after fleeing Kosovo with his family. He is a Rhodes scholar and chair of the Newfoundland and Labrador Human Rights Commission.