Yesterday I had the great pleasure of working with the tireless staffs of various Neighbourhood Houses in Vancouver. Most of these people are involved in the work of Welcoming Comunities Initiatives, working with refugees and migrants to Vancouver.
Yesterday we were in some learning about engagement design using the chaordic stepping stones and the collective story harvest tool, both developed by the Art of Hosting community of practice. In the collective story harvest, the group of about two dozen listened and witnessed the story of two prominent members of our community who left Guatemala in the early 1990s and came to Vancouver. Their story was profound and powerful, divided into two parts. In the first part they spoke about growing up in rural Guatemala, in the shadow of two beautiful volcanoes. Then, the civil war came on the heels of US subversion of Guatemalan democracy in 1954. Farms that were previously owned by indigenous farmers were given over to American corporations. Our protagonists left for the city to get educated and quickly became involved in social activism and revolutionary politics. One of the storytellers recounted many many tales of friends and colleagues being kidnapped and disappeared, tortured and killed before he finally made the decision to leave his country. After kicking around a little hea and his wife moved to Vancouver, intending to stay for only a year.
The second part of the story picks up in Vancouver. When this couple arrived the met up with a beautiful activist in the downtown eastside of Vancouver, Amalia Dorigoni. Amalia worked with the Downtown Eastside Youth Activities Society, an organization that was at the forefront of Vancouver’s harm reduction practices in the 1990s. Our storytellers worked with her picking up condoms and needles from the neighbourhood, focusing especially on the area around Strathcona Elementary School. They later went on to found several initiatives in the Downtown Eastside, especially focusing on Latino men, who move the area as refugees and have a hard time establishing themselves.
There was much in the story that was powerful, but this image of two newly arrived refugees, one of whom was pregnant, picking up needles and used condoms so that children would not be exposed to the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS is just remarkable. I have no doubt that the scores of people who hold anti-immigration views have never done this work. It just filled me with gratitude that these two, motivated by their powerfully honed sense of social justice, undertook this volunteer work as one of their first contributions to Canadian society.
Later in the day, another man came to me to remind me of something. He had fled Argentina in the 1980s as a refugee, fleeing many of the same experiences that our storytellers had. He works now as a community organizer and he reminded me that he is getting paid now to do work that in Argentina he would be killed for. We can complain about government, he said, but the fact is that they fund this work rather than sending out death squads to kill the people doing it. So yes, gratitude for that also.
And also, this current federal government is taking a dim view of refugees and immigrants. This is the most oppressive and anti-immigrant government we have had in Canada in recent memory. A new legislative initiative is especially hard on refugee claimants who have not yet been granted Canadian citizenship. Opponents fear that refugees could be returned to their countries of origin if the political conditions change or if Canada reaches a trade agreement or other alliance with the country. This is a problem because many refugees who come here have a hard time feeling welcomed to Canada. As a result, many of them are reluctant to obtain Canadian citizenship, opting instead to remain landed immigrants or permanent residents, as indeed do many capitalist immigrants to Canada.
However in the case of refugees, if the political situation in their country changes, and the country becomes democratic for example, and they are able to go back and visit their families, the fear is that they may be denied entry back to Canada. Obviously if the country of origin is safe to return to, then you are no longer a refugee, right?
Wrong. When refugees arrive in Canada, they are required to give testimony about what danger they are in. Naming people or institutions can mean that for the rest of your life you are in danger from those you have named. If you come to Canada because you are gay, a simple political change in your home country does not mean it is safe for you to be out there, even if you manage to travel back to visit your family. This must not be allowed to happen. Simple justice declares it so.
It is important that refugees who arrive in Canada are welcomed and that we do everything we can, through our governments and in our communities to embrace what people bring. As a friend of mine – an immigrant himself – has written on the issue of the transformative capacity of the stranger: “What if the alien holds the key to unlocking our own alienation?” That is a worthy question for a world in which we are increasingly intermingled with one another.