FLIGHT AND FREEDOM: Stories of Escape to Canada


The global number of people currently displaced from their home country - more than 65 million - is higher than at any time since World War II. Yet in recent years Canada has deported, denied, and diverted countless refugees. Is Canada a safe haven for refugees or a closed door? This project, Flight and Freedom: Stories of Escape to Canada, is made up of images that were originally commissioned by Maytree Foundation, a private non-for-profit organization committed to reducing poverty and inequality in Canada. They focus on Canadians who arrived as refugees from notable conflicts around the world – from WWII to the ongoing War in Afghanistan – and from persecution in their home countries. These are stories of forged passports, human smugglers, armed guards, drifting at sea, starvation, rape, death and survival. Each portrait is accompanied by a story that begins with an escape that is sometimes harrowing and always remarkable. The narrative then turns to contemporary lives and careers, and the impact of refugees-turned-Canadians in the communities they call home, from Halifax to Vancouver and Toronto. And the final question: Would they get in to Canada today? 


(The text in this gallery appears in the book Flight and Freedom: Stories of Escape to Canada, and is reprinted here with the authors' permission.)


Official Book Website: FLIGHT AND FREEDOM

Sabreen

From Negev Desert, Israel

Living in Canada since 2000’s

(Name changed to protect identity.)


“They’re going to do it on Thursday,” Sabreen’s brother-in-law quietly told her once the other men of the family had left, after their meeting. It was a Monday afternoon, and in three days, Sabreen would be killed by her cousin. She had refused a marriage arranged by her father, and there was no honour in the family while she lived.


“It will be better for everyone,” Sabreen answered calmly. But her bones screamed, and for the first time since this hell began, she did not want to die.


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Read the full story in Flight and Freedom: Stories of Escape to Canada by Ratna Omidvar and Dana Wagner. Pg. 215.

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Marko

From Sarajevo, Bosnia And Herzegovina

Living in Canada since 1990’s

(Name changed to protect identity.)


When Sarajevo was pockmarked and seized in collapse, people began to believe in destiny. It happened to Marko when a bullet missed him by no more than a foot and grazed the forehead of the man in step beside him. Then a dead artillery shell ricocheted around his apartment and spun to a stop, unexploded. A rocket-propelled grenade crashed into the south side of the apartment and did explode, but it was one wall behind his family’s north-facing rooms. By the time he escaped in 1994, Marko counted six times that he nearly lost his life.


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Read the full story in Flight and Freedom: Stories of Escape to Canada by Ratna Omidvar and Dana Wagner. Pg. 121.

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Max Farber, told by Bernie Farmer

From Sokolow Podlaski, Poland

Lived in Canada since 1940’s


The first years of war passed in relative calm for the 1,800 residents of Botchki, a village south of Bialystok in Soviet Poland. That changed when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 and eastern Poland fell to the Nazis.


As they did across the Reich, the new rulers corralled Jews into ghettos. Just under half the population of Botchki was removed to Sokolow Podlaski, a fenced-in plot with decrepit housing, and without sewers or running water. Jews caught outside the ghetto were shot on sight, but their lives depended on sneaking out and supplementing their food rations beyond the barbed wire.


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Read the full story in Flight and Freedom: Stories of Escape to Canada by Ratna Omidvar and Dana Wagner. Pg. 177.

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Claudio Durán

From Santiago, Chile

Living in Canada since 1970’s


On the evening of September 10, 1973, as he often did, Claudio Durán met with three colleagues to discuss El Mercurio at the State Technical University, the only left-leaning one of Chile’s then seven universities, where Claudio was vice-dean of the Faculty of Education. For several hours each meeting, the foursome combed the newspaper for clues. El Mercurio was a right-wing mouthpiece for those opposed to the government of President Salvador Allende, and like a political forecast, it occasionally held hints of party manoeuvres.


The researchers had predicted accurately before, and now one of them guessed that something big was coming tomorrow, September 11, possibly a bombing of the presidential palace. It was the same day the president was scheduled to visit Claudio’s university. A few members thought the evidence was ambiguous, however, and the researchers went home.


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Read the full story in Flight and Freedom: Stories of Escape to Canada by Ratna Omidvar and Dana Wagner. Pg. 41.

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Robi Botos

From Budapest, Hungary

Living in Canada since 1990’s


In the early Budapest daylight, Robi Botos walked his stepdaughter to school, and as he walked, he listened. He had trained his ear for the sound of loud speakers echoing from the city’s public squares which almost always signaled a gathering of neo-Nazi demonstrators. Jews are stealing Hungary, Gypsies are making it criminal. If he heard the sound, and careful to keep chatting to his stepdaughter, Robi would veer away from the square and down another street, an indirect route, but clear of the men in black jackets with sewn-on swastikas.


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Read the full story in Flight and Freedom: Stories of Escape to Canada by Ratna Omidvar and Dana Wagner. Pg. 191.

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Christine

From Rwanda

Living in Canada since 2011

(Name changed to protect identity.)


Few outside Rwanda saw the blueprint for genocide taking shape before April 6, 1994, the day the Rwandan dictator, President Juvénal Habyarimana, fell to earth in a burning plane. The killing began within hours of his death. There had been local massacres leading up to April 6. They would be remembered as small compared to what now happened.


[…]


From mid-April to the end of the genocide, around one hundred days later, Christine and her remaining family hid for their lives. They slept on high dryer ground and ate only raw food like cassava roots, tough and bitter tasting. But softening them over a cooking fire was unthinkable, for the time taken to linger in one place and for the rising smoke like a shooting flare.


Christine remembers the cold. April is rainy season in Rwanda, when the skies open like clockwork and soak the earth. The swamps were full and though the water wasn’t deep, it was easy to sink into mud. There were no extra layers of clothing, nothing new and dry to change into on nights that dropped to 15 degrees, and of course there was no fire for warmth or scattering mosquitoes.


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Read the full story in Flight and Freedom: Stories of Escape to Canada by Ratna Omidvar and Dana Wagner. Pg. 163. 

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Randy Singh

From Georgetown, Guyana. 

Living in Canada since 2013


The oceanfront of Guyana’s capital, Georgetown, namesake of the British king and colonizer George III, is lined against the fits and cycles of the grey-blue Atlantic by a long concrete wall built for that purpose. The seawall’s unintended use has been as a runway for children, a bench for lovers, and, when he was fifteen years old, a bed for Randy Singh.


When Randy told his family at age fourteen that he liked boys, not girls, his mother reacted the only way she knew how. She beat him. She was outraged and ashamed, and his five brothers, especially the four older ones, joined in the abuse.


[…]


For most Guyanese, it would be hard to confront their nontraditional sexuality. For a teenaged boy whose only experience with sex was forced by other boys and men, it felt hopeless.


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Read the full story in Flight and Freedom: Stories of Escape to Canada by Ratna Omidvar and Dana Wagner. Pg. 77.

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Mie Tha Lah

From Hein Zae Mining Zone, Tanintharyi Region, Myanmar

Living in Canada since 2000’s


Rebels took Mie Tha Lah’s father during the night in November 1989, the turbulent year when the military dictatorship declared martial law and changed the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar. The whole family was suspect in the disappearance of Ka Law Lah. Uniformed government officials questioned twelve-year-old Mie Tha and his mother, older brother, and younger twin sisters. Their questions made clear a suspicion that the family had ties with the rebels, and possessed secret information about the missing Ka Law. The government did not believe this was an abduction.


Truly, the family had no inside information. Their only news source, they shared with the government: Coworkers of Ka Law in the northern city Maw Chi Mining Zone, who reported him missing. The family didn’t know where he was taken or if he was still alive.


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Read the full story in Flight and Freedom: Stories of Escape to Canada by Ratna Omidvar and Dana Wagner. Pg. 169.

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Avtar Sandhu

From The Hague, Netherlands

Living in Canada since 1980’s


Avtar Sandhu watched the shapes of strangers slip onto the deck of a cargo ship, a far smaller one than he had expected. It was a warm June evening in 1987 in The Hague and the dock was growing dark. Like a curtain, the twilight kept the ship overfilling with Indian travelers obscured, out of clear view of the Dutch authorities.


If Avtar stepped onboard, there would be 174 passengers. Many of them, like him, were Sikh men who had fled the Punjab region of India. Avtar didn’t know the other passengers, only the agent who would cross the Atlantic too. He covered his spot with a loan from a friend in New York at a cost of $3,000 US. His passage paid and his few belongings in hand, all Avtar had left to do was board the Amelie.


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Read the full story in Flight and Freedom: Stories of Escape to Canada by Ratna Omidvar and Dana Wagner. Pg. 207.

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Tarun

From Jaffna, Sri Lanka

Living in Canada since 2000’s

(Name changed to protect identity.)

 

Tarun was born in 1983, the year civil war began in Sri Lanka. Across the northern part of the island country once known as Ceylon, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Tamil Tigers) were in a brutal fight to establish a free state. Tamils, a Sri Lankan Hindu minority, opposed the (Buddhist) Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan government, and thousands would die in coming years. The conflict was built on decades of grievances, and each death pushed the groups farther apart.


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Read the full story in Flight and Freedom: Stories of Escape to Canada by Ratna Omidvar and Dana Wagner. Pg. 87.

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Joseph

From Freetown, Sierra Leone

Living in Canada since 1990’s

(Name changed to protect identity.)

 

On a Sunday in May, 1997, Joseph awoke to his uncle gently shaking him. There had been a coup, his uncle said. A coup. There were natural questions, like who did it? And are we safe? But consuming Joseph for the last several weeks were his O-level exams and the last exam he had left to write crowded everything out. Wide-eyed but still in the embers of sleep, he breathed “How am I going to do my French?” They stayed indoors listening to the radio.


A band of officers in the Sierra Leone Army had forced the elected president into exile. Over the airwaves on Sunday, May 25, the junta announced themselves the new leaders in Freetown, where Joseph lived. In the coming weeks, fighters ordered in by the rebel group Revolutionary United Front (RUF) would help seize control of the capital.


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Read the full story in Flight and Freedom: Stories of Escape to Canada by Ratna Omidvar and Dana Wagner. Pg. 155.

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