WINNIPEG — As long as there have been wars there have been refugees, and long before the crisis in Syria, Canadians have been working to help those forced to flee their homelands, and there is no end in sight to the great need of so many.
Nine years ago, Winnipegger Anne Mahon began volunteering with the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba (IRCOM), a non-profit operating a transitional housing complex for refugees. Once a week Mahon teaches English as an additional language to about 20 newcomers to Canada, some of whom are university educated, others who have never held a pencil.
Their stories of survival compelled her to write The Lucky Ones: African Refugees’ Stories of Extraordinary Courage, a collection of personal accounts of being forced from one’s home and beginning again in a new country. The stories come from men, women and children, aged four to 73, representing a variety of African countries and backgrounds.
Mahon writes of resilience and an extraordinary courage and will to live. “I have been transformed by being the messenger of these peoples’ stories,” she told a gathering at St. Gianna Beretta Molla Church Feb. 2.
She said she wrote the book to create awareness about refugees, to honour their stories, which she believes are often misunderstood, and to raise funds. Half of the proceeds from the book are being donated to the African community through the University of Winnipeg’s Opportunity Fund assisting new university students with tuition fees. The other half goes to SEED Winnipeg for micro-loan opportunities for business and community projects.
“There is no one quintessential refugee,” said Mahon. “Some come from refugee camps, others were never in a camp; some have university degrees, others have no education; some come to reunite with family that came before and immediately have a family and a community, others arrive completely alone. Some have seen or experienced war and acts of violence. Some have lived through total instability in their lives with no idea of the future.”
She read an excerpt from the book, from a man who experienced the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya that opened in 1991 and currently contains 179,000 people who have fled wars and violence in neighbouring countries.
“Have you ever seen people fight over a jug of water?” he asks. “The water was precious, to drink, to bathe” in temperatures reaching 40C.
The lesson Mahon has learned from refugees is one of gratitude. “For refugees, everything begins with gratitude. They thank us over and over for giving them safety and opportunity.”
Newcomers know the value of family, Mahon said. “Their first question is always, ‘How is your family?’ because if the family is good, all is good.”
In another excerpt, a man writes that besides housing and food, those we help need our respect.
“Some people confuse helping with telling someone what they should do,” he writes. “There can be an attitude of superiority: ‘You are the one who needs me and my country because you are coming here.’ This does not help us. For me, helping is based on respect and an understanding of each other. To say, ‘I don’t have anything to learn from you; you are the one learning from me,’ creates the impression of inferiority.
“People say they would like to give a cup, or a bed or a television. They really care. That is a good start, but help like that is for the short term. You can buy me a huge beautiful bed, but if I cannot sleep, then it is just for decoration. I know that it was not meant for decoration, it was meant for sleep, but in order for me to be able to have a restful sleep I need to feel like a contributing, valuable member of the society I live in.
“We have an opportunity to learn from them,” Mahon said. “Anything is possible. We should never limit our expectations to the boundaries of what we already know.”