Finding a place to belong

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March 25, 2015 | God at work in the World
Dick Benner, Editor/Publisher
<p>Lynn Schulze</p>

Their stories are heart-rending, but their hopes are high. Navigating Canada’s increasingly complex immigration system wears them down, but their resilience still shows.

Listening for nearly two hours in teacher Lynn Schulze’s English-as-a-second-language classroom at Waterloo Collegiate Institute (WCI) to these painful, winding journeys was at once bone-chilling and spine-tingling. They have formed a tight bond in a presentation tour group called Crossing Borders.

Maria Alejandra was born in Colombia and came to Canada via Miami when she was 15, after living in limbo for four years as a refugee claimant. “I felt my life was on hold much of this time,” she says. (See her story on video.)

But with the help of the Mennonite Coalition for Refugee Support located in Kitchener, Ont., she could work through her emotional struggles while attending school. The refugee coalition is a not-for-profit organization that welcomes and supports refugee claimants through the refugee claim process.

“It’s almost impossible to keep up your grades and maintain any kind of social life while waiting and then wading through a court case,” says Schulze.

After graduating from WCI, Alejandra’s family received a positive decision on their Humanitarian and Compassionate Application. She is now working as a lifeguard/instructor and is enrolled in the public relations degree program at Conestoga College in Kitchener.

Shegofa Alizada, born in Kabul, Afghanistan, was 15 when she participated in a government exchange program to the United States. After defecting from the program, she quickly navigated her way across the U.S. to Buffalo, from which she made the crossing into Canada, which she heard could be her “refuge.” Serendipitously, a Fort Erie, Ont., cabbie knew just where to take her—Viva La Casa—a shelter from which she could file her claim of asylum. She is now living in Toronto on her own. (See her story on video.)

“Even though the expectation in Afghanistan is for a girl to marry young and have kids, I always wanted a career and a life of my own,” Alizada says. At WCI, from which she graduated, she said she was helped on her journey by her teachers and was even welcomed by the students. “I had the feeling I found a place where I belong.” She is now studying business at George Brown College in Toronto and dreams of bringing her family to Canada.

Born to a well-to-do family in Iraq, Huda Al-Obaidi had to flee her homeland for Jordan when war broke out in 2003. After uncertainty and a long wait, she came to Canada with her parents and three sisters in 2013. An articulate spokesperson for Crossing Borders, she plans to study pharmacy after graduating from WCI.

A brother and sister duo, Elias and Rachel Nyirabakire, were born in the Democratic Republic of Congo and had to flee to Uganda during civil unrest in 1998. Rachel, a refugee all her life, was literally carried out of the country in her mother’s arms at the age of three months. Elias has produced a documentary of their journey and new life in Canada, especially at WCI.

These are only a sampling of many similar stories of hardship by young people seeking a better life in Canada, some as refugees and others coming as immigrants seeking permanent residency. Some have become passionate promoters of WCI’s Crossing Borders, working in tandem with refugee coalition staff such as Kaylee Perez. Born in Canada to a Cuban father and a Palestinian-Colombian mother, Perez says she has always been fascinated by cross-cultural communication.

She began volunteering at the refugee coalition during her third year as an undergraduate student in global studies and fell in love with its work. She now acts as its youth coordinator. In addition, as a recent graduate of the master of peace and conflict studies program at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, she says she has “gained an in-depth perspective on the crucial role that civil society plays in building long-lasting peace.”

How do they view the politics of immigration as its policies change and restrictions toughen in recent years?  Reluctant to criticize a government that has helped them achieve a new life, both students and teacher alike did admit that the processes have become more “politically-driven,” favouring the skilled labour segment over other qualified applicants.

How has Crossing Borders changed their lives since coming here? It has instilled self-confidence, heightened their sense of self-worth and provided a place to belong, were the sentiments echoed around the circle.

The group has received financial support over the last two years from the Canadian Council for Refugees and the Laidlaw Foundation.

Lynn Schulze

Huda Al-Obaidi

Elias Nyirabakire

Rachel Nyirabakire

Kaylee Perez

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