Growing up in the shadow of the refugee experience

Flight and Freedom book CHRISTOPHER MANSON PHOTO
Flight and Freedom book CHRISTOPHER MANSON PHOTO

I’ve written often on the refugee experience because I was brought up in its shadow. Both my parents left their ancestral homes not because they wanted to, but as a result of persecution and anti-Semitism.

My late mother, Gertrude, was brought to Canada as a child prior to World War II. After her family was driven from their village of Zaslav in Ukraine by violent pogroms, Canada was a welcoming home at that time.

My father, Max, was not so fortunate. He suffered the brutalities of the Shoah. At its tragic conclusion, he had to face the fact he was the sole Jewish survivor of his small Polish shtetl. Murdered in Treblinka were his first wife, two young children (Shalom and Yitzchak), as well as seven brothers and sisters.

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Once again, this time following a heartless closed-door immigration policy, Canada re-opened its borders to the stateless people of Europe, including thousands of Jewish survivors like my father.

Through my lived experience as a child of refugees, one thing became clear to me: they all had a story. Their stories ranged from the insignificant to the truly heroic, and from sadness, despair and heartache to joy and elation.

Last month, following almost three years of painstaking research, interviews and conversations, a book on the refugee experience co-written by refugee advocate Ratna Omidvar and Ryerson University researcher Dana Wagner was launched. Flight and Freedom tells 30 individual stories of refugees, experiences that were at once complex and harrowing. My father’s story is among the 30, and what strikes the reader is both the common experiences and the stark differences that brought them to Canada and helped them start a new life.

All the stories in Flight and Freedom are truly compelling. Yet each reader will take certain scenes away that speak to them. The story of Christine, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide is one such story. On its surface, it’s as different from my father’s Shoah experience as one could imagine. Geographically, politically, in terms of people and places – little is familiar. Yet, Christine’s familiarity with life over death was a theme I sadly understood. As the génocidaires were committing mass murder, Christine, then a young child, experienced the slayings of her father and brother. Through the luck of what my father used to call the necessary “1,000 miracles” she and her mother escaped with their lives. Horror surrounds you in such evil times, and understanding how one copes was explained all too well by Christine: “Because you were trying to save your own life, we wouldn’t pay attention to what’s happening. We would just run.”

But perhaps the story that has stayed with me more than others is that of a young Bedouin woman, Sabreen. Brought up in a Bedouin camp in southern Israel, she became a pariah within her tribe because her mother had given birth to her out of wedlock. Within the tightly bound Bedouin community, this was heresy. Her mother was murdered as a result – an honour killing – and Sabreen was suspect from the day she was born.

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A forced marriage and its continual physical abuse drove her to attempt suicide. And strangely, it was then that another commonality made itself known. As in my father’s story, despair, anger and fear led her to death’s door. However, as with my father, death was cheated by happenstance. Her suicide was unsuccessful, and with the help of Israeli friends, Sabreen made it to Tel Aviv and eventually to Canada, where after two attempts, her bid for refugee status was approved.

There is so much more to Sabreen’s story, as there are to all the others in Flight and Freedom. In the end, each refugee and immigrant in this book share one collective conclusion: each is deeply grateful to Canada for embracing them and giving them back their dignity.

As we welcome Syrian refugees today, it would behoove us all to remember the stories of Sabreen and Christine.