My Family Were Once Refugees and That’s How I Got Here

Right now in Canada record numbers of Haitian refuges are crossing into the country via the US border. So anti-immigration rhetoric is ramping up. It’s high in The US and Europe too. I was inspired to write this after reading one too many send them back post filled with lies I decided to sit down and write this. The events in Charlottesville, Virginia over the weekend only cemented the idea. BTW neither the original author or the sharer have removed the post captured below from their profiles at the time of writing this post, the Tuesday after the Saturday.


Beyond current events it always upsets me to read these posts because if it wasn’t for immigration and refugees being welcomed, I wouldn’t be here. So on some level you’re sending me back too. Let’s talk about how I got here first, one family’s storey. Then some food for thought before you post these things. Interestingly the post was shared by some one who’s last name literally means English man living in France and their ancestors were likely forced to leave their country by the King and had no place to go. So chances are her relatives were once refugees too.

My Family’s Storey

My Polish Great Uncle Joe was imprisoned in a a Natzi concentration camp for much of the second world war. When they were liberated he had no place to go his home and his country were destroyed. Canada offered him refugee status and so he moved across the Atlantic, speaking no English with his wife in tow. He built a successful life here opening a popular steak house in Ottawa. Once he had gathered the resources necessary he sent for his bother Mike. Mike worked until he had a medium sized hotel. In 1960 Mike and Joe sponsored their brother Lawrence, my grandfather, and his family including 5 children and my seven year old mother. I know Joe came here as a refugee and Mike might have technically qualified as one as well but both he and my grandfather had family support when they got here. My grandfather and my mother came as immigrants and not refugees directly but they were sponsored by one. None of them or their families spoke a word of English and they all arrived by boat.

In Poland my grandparents were farmers, this was the old farm house they left in 1960 pictured in 2003 when I last visited. It had been used as a storage shed for over 20 years but the land was still farmed. My Grandmother is in red.

My mother’s parents didn’t have the same great successes but they built a life here. At first all seven of them had a tiny 3 bedroom house and they rented on room to a boarder. About 5 years after arriving they bought another house with 4 bedrooms so the girls always had to share. They kept the first house and bought a duplex and rented them our for extra income. My grandmother worked in the hotel as a chambermaid and eventually the hospital as an orderly and continued at the hotel in her evenings and weekends. My grandfather found work as a labourer but had a bad accident at work and hurt his back badly within a couple of years of arriving. He was hospitalized for months in Toronto several hours away. Money was so tight that my grandmother was only able to visit him once or twice. After he recovered he worked  seasonally at the experimental farm and did odd jobs in the off season. They supported their 5 children through university but there was no money for a car so neither learned to drive. As they reached retirement age they were able to live comfortably from their rental income and travel back to Poland when they felt like it and help to support family there.

So I am a first generation Canadian my mother was born elsewhere. I am basically here and a Canadian because we welcome refugees.

Who is a refugee?

Once of the things that makes me proud to be Canadian and led me to do part of my undergraduate in Canadian Studies is how we treat refugees and approach multiculturalism at least officially. Now, how Canada treats refugees is pretty standard across the world. That’s because we are a signatory country on the UN Declaration on Refugees. We have to follow certain rules because of that and in some cases, like perhaps now it limits us from doing more.

In 1951 the world got together and agreed that no one should be sent back to a country where their freedom or life would be threatened. In all 145 countries agreed that they each had a responsibility to protect these people, hell the Americans even built a famous statue about it. It states that:

“A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

We as a country, as do many others, extend what we consider basic human rights to these people because they are in fact people when they get here. In Canada that means they are protected by the charter of rights and freedoms from the moment they land and like any other Canadian or person and this entitles to apply for social programs. Being granted refugee status recognizes that this person is very likely on their way to becoming a Canadian Citizen and affords them faster access to certain programs then does landed immigrant status. However to move from refugee status to a Canadian Citizen still requires the same process and you may still have a timeline in which to complete it. Many but not most refugees in Canada choose to return to their home country when it is safe for them. The key ideological difference is that a landed immigrant is choosing to come here a refugee has no where else to go.

Occasionally the need in a country is so great that the UN will set up a camp with in it to protect the rights and the people themselves. Then these are referred to as refugee camps. These camps exist because so many people are drifting, often due to fighting, with in a country with no place to go. In some of these camps people can apply for refugee status but they still have to find a country to take them.

Not every person who gets here and declares themselves a refugee thereby applying for status will be approved as such. Usually a hearing is scheduled quickly to determine if they meet the criteria and even may be held in a detention centre (often a jail) while they go through the process. This process determines two things, if they are in fact a refugee and if they are admissible to Canada.

Who is not a refugee?

An economic migrant is not a refugee and this is a common reason to be turned down. Being from an incredible poor country with no prospects doesn’t make you a refugee. Being from a place where you can not escape famine is. Wanting or needing ‘a better life’ does not make you a refugee.

Being from a violent place is not reason enough to be admitted as a refugee. If you can move within your own country and escape the violence you will likely be sent back. This is why refugee claims from Mexico are generally denied if they are based on violence. If your whole country is so dangerous that you will likely be killed or injured you are considered a refugee.

The capital Warsaw at the end of the war and fully restored. A postcard from my scrapbook. As you drive through the countryside you see ruins being used as storage occasionally.

Occasionally a person may meet the definition of a refugee but not be admissible to Canada or they may have their refugee status revoked. One common reason is because of past criminal involvement. If you pose a danger to the people with in a country you will not be admitted. But this is not the case for petty crimes that do not really pose a clear threat to Canadians. Some reasons to be turned away are terrorist involvement, murder, rape, assault, hate speech or any other number of reasons. Crimes that may not prevent you entry as a refugee include, theft, fraud, driving offences or drug possession. All countries screen refugees carefully for this reason.

What’s happening right now?

This is essentially as true of what is going on in Europe and the Mid East right now as what is going on in Canada. People are seeking refugee status by showing up which is called irregularly instead of via paper work which is the regular way. Canada usually doesn’t have irregular refugee requests because it is a big isolated country bordered only by the USA. Once and a while a small number will arrive as stowaways or at an airport with a visa. Interestingly visas are at least partially required from certain countries to to prevent this. It’s also helps to keep dangerous people from getting here in the first place. If you are a danger to Canadians we don’t let you here (you can’t get a visa) even if its just for a vacation. This is also similar to why Canadians with criminal records can’t enter the USA.

In order to prevent refugees from picking and choosing which country to seek refugee status in, the UN has something called the safe third country agreement. Since refugees are in danger they are expected to make a claim as soon as they get to a ‘safe’ country rather than travelling to a more ‘desirable’ country. Certain countries declare each other as safe effectively eliminating claims from refugees arriving from that country. Canada and the USA have a safe third country agreement. Right now many refugees are arriving in European countries considering safe and are attempting to get to Germany or the U.K. rather than making a claim where they first arrive.

In the USA Haitian refugees have generally been allowed to stay because of the fallout from an earthquake in Haiti but this was temporary status. It was announced recently that this status would be revoked and people would be expected to return to Haiti. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere before the earthquake, it often doesn’t have a functioning government, there is little to no safe housing, it’s a violent unsafe place, and cholera and disease outbreaks are common. All of this adds up to making it a very unsafe country. Haiti is the other half of the island that also houses the Dominican Republic and flying in the differences are stark even from the air. The Dominican Republic is lush and green and Haiti is just brown. You can literally see the line that divides the island.

Because of the safe third country agreement if a Haitian tries to make a refugee claim at a legal border crossing they will be told they are already somewhere safe and to turn around, however there are a few exceptions to the safe third country agreement. That’s why Haitians are illegally crossing the border and making refugee claims in Canada right now, they think it’s worth it, even though they know they will immediately arrested and detained for illegally crossing the border. Because many people are doing this right now and that’s unusual we don’t have the systems in place to handle this quickly. People crossing know that they will be detained for extended periods of time before they can even be processed and they are choosing to do it anyway.

Last year Canada saw a similar uptick in irregular refugee claims from the USA by mideastern and muslim people. Both of these waves have brought up the Canada-US safe country agreement. The hard truth is that as long as this agreement is in place most people will be returned to the US, whether they should be or not is up for debate. That’s not really what I’m getting at here but if Canada were to end this agreement with the US it would have a lot of political fallout since it would essentially declare that the US is not a safe country at least for some people. So that is the long and short of why people are trying to come here right now and why they are not crossing at regular border crossings.

What we need to remember

The vast majority of any group of people are nice and good people. Refugees are just another group of people but chances are they’ve already been through a lot. We as Canadians believe that all people deserve to be protected by a basic set of human rights including personal freedom and security and that everyone in Canada is protected by the charter of rights, these people are in Canada. Free speech in Canada is not absolute and is limited. Posts like this one that upset me often cross that line into hate speech. Speech that targets an identifiable group of people and invites violence is a crime in and of itself. Posts like these are in the very least divisive, inaccurate, deceptive, insulting, fear mongering, potentially upsetting and unnecessary.

The original author of this post has specific threats with dates all over his profile and belongs to groups that call for violence agains specific minorities. His profile is also often unavailable presumably because it has been flagged and is under review by Facebook. His last name is most certainly Irish. There is a very good chance that his ancestors were forced from their homes during the Irish Potato famine and sought shelter in the new world, IE Canada. The person who shared it among my friends list isn’t generally known to have the best judgement. Her last name literally means English person living in France, not to mention it’s a French (France) last name. So chances are she’s a direct product of immigration twice and doesn’t know what her own name means or at least doesn’t care.

Another point to remember is that virtually everyone in Canada is an immigrant or descendant from immigrants. The only people in Canada that are not are First Nations people and I would hazard to guess that somewhere in their family tree there is an ancestor from elsewhere. With out those ancestors you would not be who you are or where you are with out them. If we all took the attitude that these posters are abdicating for most of us wouldn’t be here. Posts like this that state that Canada doesn’t want refugees or immigrants at all is insulting to people that were refugees, immigrants or their descendants which is in fact the vast majority of Canadians.

Origins of the post shared

As I started writing this I thought, where did this even come from and do I have a reason to be upset. When I got the CBC alert on my watch for the deaths and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia I thought back on what I had read the day before. I’m not posting names or any easily identifiable information because  one these people don’t need more exposure and two I’m not here to shame particular people. Rather to shed some light on where these things originate and how they can make people feel about themselves and potentially you. It turns out in this case the post originates from a splinter group of a white supremacist organization with posts threatening Canadians on a specific date on their Facebook page.

This post in particular was authored by someone claiming to be the national Vice President of Storm Alliance a susposidly ultra nationalistic group of volunteers that have a history of using street patrols to intimidate and harass immigrants and refugees. You can read more about their activities at the border crossing in Quebec in this story by Vice. In actual fact the group is a splinter group of the Soldiers of Odin which was founded by a Finnish white supremacist named Mika Ranta which has been classified as neo-natzi. The Storm Alliance Canada Facebook page is filled with veiled threats against minorities which are to culminate on September 30th, take that for what you will. I’m not linking to any of their content as I don’t believe that they warrant further attention unless a law enforcement agency disagrees with me. BTW neither the original poster or the sharer in my friends list removed it after the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia over the weekend, classy!

By clicking through to profiles and a little bit of googling and reading (about 10 minutes worth) I was able to find reputable sources for this information. If I was just looking for curiosity it would have taken less then two minutes to figure out the Neo-Natzi ties to this post. Before you share something take those two minutes to figure out what it is if it’s controversial. Otherwise you might have something like this on your profile and not even know!

An unequivocal demonstration of bad judgement

Posting stuff like this can also make you look like an idiot really, REALLY fast! A simple google search of your last name can tell anyone that originally you’re not from here either! In this case and given the tragic events of the weekend it makes you seem like you might agree with the way things unfolded.

It’s an old rule but in public one should not discuss religion or politics. While that might not totally be true and there are certainly some ways to post about both that can make you look educated, interesting and thoughtful. Posting ‘I just voted’ or even that you’re volunteering for a political candidate is probably never a bad thing. Furthermore your free speech rights are yours to exercise as you wish.

Even if you have a job, a house, friends and a partner now you might need a new one in the future. Chances are someone along the way will think this is hate speech, be descendant of refugees or just plain agree with our constitution. Hell, someone might even agree completely with your point of view but still judge you harshly for how you shared your opinion. Sharing a post like this is grounds for being charged with disseminating hate speech and you could spend up to two years in jail (in Canada). Sharing or even authoring a post like this isn’t likely to put you on the police’s radar. Truthfully if I saw something like this on someone’s social media I would not:

  • Write them a reference letter for university
  • Want to be their real life friend
  • Agree to a second date
  • Want to spend time with them socially
  • Want to hire them
  • Trust their judgment even on unrelated things

Perhaps that is too harsh of me and I can totally see that side of it too. Lots of people hit share mindlessly and frequently with out much thought. The nicest possible thing that one could think about a person sharing this in this situation is something akin to, “Bless her soul, that girl doesn’t understand enough to know better.” Of course there is so much more to say about this, multiculturalism, racism, xenophobia and legal definitions and rights just to start. But for now just know that if you’re sharing this sort of thing more than likely some one like me is taking it personally and it makes them sad to think that people feel this way about loved family members and even themselves.

So am I wrong taking such a hard line on this? Is this free speech, excusable, insulting to descendants of refugees or should it colour your view of a person? After what happened this weekend how can anyone have ‘fresh content’ on their page that agrees with Neo-natzi organizations?





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