Sad, yet memorable stories of new Canadian writers

Early last year, it was a great privilege to be invited by an editor of
a book publisher to write about how I came to Canada. I was told then that her proposed project was to invite 36 other writers, novelists, poets, journalists and scholars to write about how they came to Canada.

Their fascinating stories, expressed with joy and humour, have
been published as a book entitled, The Story That Brought Me Here: To Alberta from Everywhere, edited through the hard work of a former Edmonton Journal reporter, Linda Goyette, and published by Brindle & Glass, which last month held the book’s launch in Edmonton.

The writers, who contributed to the book came from every corner
of the world. They came from Iraq, Brazil, Hong Kong, Mexico, Sudan,
Afghanistan, Hungary, Nigeria, the Netherlands, the U.S.A., South
Korea, Sierra Leone, Peru, India, South Africa, Vietnam, Ireland,
China, Burundi, England, Poland, Singapore, Australia, Scotland,
Lebanon and yours truly, from Tanzania.

Each one of us were given a passage selected beforehand by the
editor to read from our chapter in front of an audience packed into the theatre of the Edmonton Public Library.

Judging from the thunderous applause that followed each
presentation, the audience simply loved the readings, which were
collections of happy, and some sad, but memorable stories of some
recent Alberta settlers. A few years from now, the book may be a
valuable historical document or a prescribed book in some history
classes, but the initiative taken by an aggressive former reporter is
highly commendable.

Jalal Barzanji, from Kurdistan, Iraq, who had the distinction of
being the first PEN Canada Writer in Exile, talked about how he lived
as a writer under Saddam Hussein’s totalitarian regime. Never having
used a gun in his life, he says, “my pen was my only weapon to fight
for a better world,” which eventually brought him to Canada.

Thuc Cong from Vietnam described how her husband, Sonny,
escaped in a boat with 14 other people and when the captain became
severely seasick, without any knowledge of navigation, had to grab the steering wheel and managed to take the boat to safety in Malaysia, where they stayed as refugees at Pulau Bidong. Sonny came to Edmonton and was later joined by his wife Thuc, who got a job in the library of a college.

“I wish I had come to Canada sooner. There was so much to learn,
so much to do, and so much to enjoy. I regretted all the activities and
opportunities that I had missed. I had to catch up with the lost years. I
had to race with the clock, taking any chance to live my life to the

“I wish I had come to Canada sooner. There was so much to learn,
so much to do, and so much to enjoy. I regretted all the activities and
opportunities that I had missed. I had to catch up with the lost years. I
had to race with the clock, taking any chance to live my life to the

“My feet could not carry me but still we carried on. Our souls
needed peace and safety,” he writes.
It took the Garang family four months to cross Sudan to reach Ethiopia, where they were placed in a refugee camp. But then there
was a change of government in Ethiopia and they were sent back to
Sudan. As the war was still on, Athiann and his family went to Kenya,
where they were placed in another refugee camp. From one refugee
camp to another, they were finally granted permits to come to Canada.

“Here in Canada, life is tough, but at least I have found a place I
can call home, where there is some peace. I plan to finish school, find
a way to serve my new community and my people back in Sudan.”
A.K. Rashid, an intellectual from Afghanistan, who had to flee his
country due to the atrocities brought about by the feuding warlords
and the mujahedeen. “Kabul was burning; hunger and death ruled the
city,” he laments and under these terrible circumstances, he and his
family took refuge in India. In 1996, they were about to go back when
they heard that the Taliban had taken over. Under the new regime,
music and dancing was banned, theatres and television stations were
closed. Men were ordered to grow full, untrimmed beards, and women were forced to cover themselves completely. They were not allowed to be seen on the streets without a man who was a near relative.

They came to Canada in 2002, but sadly, writes Rashid, “in terms
of finding jobs, up until now I have noticed that no place except
McDonald’s welcomed us.”

I recall my own experience, narrated in the book, in the early ’70s
when it was impossible to get a job without Canadian experience,
making many immigrants wonder if employers were using it as an
excuse to bar them from getting jobs.

Newcomers and refugees from every country around the globe
have been fleeing from totalitarian regimes, wars and famines to
better their lives and to find peace and prosperity in Canada. Canada
has provided refuge to them. They have been welcomed with open
arms. Some do very well, others not so well, but that’s part of life.

These are personal stories of joy, sadness, regret, humour, homesickness, sacrifices and new beginnings of Alberta’s new Canadians and a testimony to Canada’s pluralistic society.



Richardson out of touch with constituents

When I lived in Tanzania, the favourite topic of African politicians was to blame the country’s Asian immigrant minority for crime, problems in the economy or in the political system. African politicians would stand up at a political rally and blame the Asians for everything that went wrong in the country and the masses would readily support them. But I couldn’t believe it when an politician from Canada, a respected developed democratic country was quoted as saying that immigrants don’t have much respect for the law. Considering that the incumbent for Calgary Centre, Lee Richardson, who represented a riding with 25 per cent immigrants, his comments are bizarre to start with. Look who’s committing the crimes, he said. They’re not the kid who grew up next door.

As usual, the politicians either say their comments were misconstrued or they were misquoted. Whatever his explanation may be, he is simply not fit enough to be an MP representing a riding with such a large immigrant population. How can any MP think of blurting such statements even if one doesn’t have immigrants in one’s  riding? The incident shows that Richardson, who has been an MP in the riding since 2004 is ill-informed and out of touch with his constituents.

Simply put, the role of an MP is to protect the interests of his constituents and Richardson’s statements are anything but protective of immigrants’ rights and obligations. The damage is done and it’s irreparable.

Instead of making such negative comments on immigrants, we would have expected Richardson to come up with new ideas about how to settle them when they come to Canada and come up with innovative ideas so that they could get suitable jobs instead of channelling funds for more employment counsellors who make their living out of the federal budget, telling immigrants how to downgrade their credentials, making a bunch of photocopies for them and giving them lectures on how to write the perfect resume the tools with which they could eventually end up getting jobs at any cleaning company or at a McDonald’s restaurant anyway.

As an incumbent MP, Richardson will be well advised to read reports, publications and books, which clearly indicate that immigrants come to Canada with higher education levels, but then seek ways to narrow the gap between their income levels and those of other Canadians.
It is unfortunate that systematic racism remains as a constant reminder in this country as is indicated in this story of the Edmonton Journal May 2, 2008 headed Skilled immigrants do not find doors open in Canada, which cites the experience of Sufian Yanes, an electrical engineer, who graduated from the University of Damascus, with a work experience of 10 years in Syria, Germany and Switzerland.

When he immigrated to this country, Canadian immigration officials told him that his degree would be recognized here. Guess what happened since his arrival? He has found work only at gas stations, the food industry and for the past three years as taxi driver. Welcome to Canada!

In one of the recent books published on immigrants, Unlikely Utopia: The Surprising Triumph of Canadian Pluralism, Penguin Group, 2007,
author Michael Adams points out that for Canadian Muslims the promise of economic success in Canada has yet to be truly fulfilled when bearing in mind their educational background and employment outcomes. Muslims in Canada are better educated than the population at large: 45 per cent hold a university degree as compared with 23 per cent of all Canadians. And yet in terms of income, Muslim Canadians lag behind the national average.
Richardson should have known that people living in glass houses should not throw stones at others!

Mansoor Ladha's Travel Blog

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