Hope was the operative word here. Radiating from the eager and sincere volunteers, young and old, as Toronto joined the world Thursday to mark World Refugee Day at Yonge-Dundas Square.
Many had converged on the square after a symbolic walk in solidarity with refugees from around the globe. Refugees like Yak Deng, who graduated from the University of Toronto this month in applied microbiology. Deng is from the Jonglei in South Sudan, the youngest country in the world that was born out of war as recently as 2011.
Deng’s story is similar to those caught in the tumultuous period in Sudan between 1983 and 2005, when more than two million people died of war and war-related causes. When over four million people were internally displaced in southern Sudan and nearly two million southern Sudanese fled across borders.
Deng reminded me of Francis Odong, a fellow countryman of his whom I had met in Juba, South Sudan. I remembered Odong may be because there is nothing extraordinary about both their stories, at least by the standards of the “lost boys” of children being separated from their families because of the civil war and finding their way west via refugee camps in neighbouring countries.
I remembered Odong alongside Deng because both their stories are considered ordinary in the backdrop of the harsh reality around them. Both did not have to face the trauma of becoming a child soldier, but were forced to cross a border and live in refugee camps. Theirs is the story of lives derailed, almost at its outset.
Faith in education
Theirs is also the story of youth determined to fight their way out of predicament through education. Of a certain dignity that comes so easily to the poor; the urge for an education despite starting out late; not missing out on studies through civil wars; of studying to become a paramedic while juggling a full-time job in the case of Odong and getting a full-scholarship to study in UoFT in the case of Deng thanks to the World University Service of Canada.
They are the fortunate few among 45.2 million refugees and internally displaced people worldwide who lack basic resources after being driven from their homes due to conflict or natural disaster. Fortunate because school quickly becomes a distant memory when nations begin to self-destruct and empty themselves of people. Like in Syria at the moment, which people in Dundas Square were made aware of.
“In all the years I have worked on behalf of refugees, this is the most worrying I have ever witnessed. The needs of these people are overwhelming; their anguish is unbearable. Today, there are over 1.6 million registered Syrian refugees,” said António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees in his message for the day from Jordan.
“I have come to Jordan on this day to stand by the people of Syria in their time of acute need. I also want to salute Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and all the countries in the region for being generous havens that have saved hundreds of thousands of lives,” said Guterres. It is also a timely reminder for those in Canada who fret about the “hordes” of refugees coming to the country.
For the record, approximately 7,500 refugees are brought to Canada and assisted by the government each year and private groups such as churches welcome about 3,000. The problematic number is the 30,000 or so who arrive as refugee claimants.
It is also good to remember that every minute eight people around the world are forced to flee their homes due to war and persecution. And that no one like Deng chooses to be a refugee. His was a long trek from the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. The 24-year-old hasn’t seen his parents and siblings for the past 11 years, “because a visit is not affordable right now”. — New Canadian Media
Every minute 8 people around the world are forced to flee their homes due to war and persecution.
No one chooses to be a refugee.
Ranjit is a Toronto-based writer with interest in Canadian civic affairs, immigration, the environment and motoring. Maytree and Al Jazzera English alumnus.