'I think we'll find our identity now': Refugees speak of gratitude at Halifax ceremony
Published Tuesday, February 21, 2017 8:01AM AST Last Updated Tuesday, February 21, 2017 8:11AM AST
HALIFAX -- Jelele Etefa and her husband Bona Dhina sang the Canadian anthem, waved plastic flags and repeated a citizenship oath at a Halifax waterfront museum Monday.
It was the end of a long trek for the Ethiopian refugees, who were aware of the moment's particular poignancy.
Dhina said he'd heard of the desperate mid-winter border crossings by Africans seeking refugee status in southern Manitoba, as U.S. President Donald Trump pushes to bring in an immigration ban targeting seven majority Muslim countries.
The 39-year-old father said it saddens him to see the increasing challenges for refugees, and the opposition growing in some nations.
"They are closing a lot of countries .... It is very difficult for them. If they are going back to their original country, it will be dangerous for them. They will be jailed or killed. It's very bad," said Dhina.
Dhina gained Canadian citizenship a year ago, and on Monday brought his three-year-old daughter Simboo and seven-year-old son Surraa to witness their mother's rite of passage at the Halifax gathering of 33 people from 16 nations who were becoming Canadians.
Etefa's journey started in 2005 with a foot trek across arid southern Ethiopia and a stifling ride in the back of a truck filled with cattle to reach Nairobi. Dhina had fled the country in 2001 after expressing political dissent against the regime following a contested election result.
"They were jailing our people, killing our people," he said, referring to his Oromo ethnicity. After years in and out of a refugee camp in Kenya, he and his wife were accepted through the United Nations refugee program for a placement in Nova Scotia in 2011.
Canada has seen a steady increase in overall refugee and protected person figures in recent years, climbing from 24,000 in 2014 to last year's totals of almost 47,000, while total immigration was about 243,000 newcomers last year, according to Statistics Canada figures.
While a poll released Monday by the Angus Reid institute says the Liberal government has majority approval for its refugee policy, 41 per cent of respondents said the country is taking in too many asylum seekers.
About 47 per cent of respondents said Canada is accepting the correct number of refugees, and 11 per cent of the 1,508 adults surveyed said the country should increase the number of refugees.
Francoise Baylis, a bioethicist who gave the address during Monday's ceremony, said in an interview she's concerned by Trump's actions and the recent emergence of opposition from several MPs to a parliamentary motion condemning Islamophobia and racism.
"I'm very mindful of the broader political and social context we're in now," she said. "I want to follow our prime minister in terms of ... we're going to be positive, we're going to be open, we're going to be welcoming and we're going to give out a very clear message that if you want strength you get it through diversity."
"These ceremonies are a reminder to Canadians of what we have."
Fred Okello, a 42-year-old refugee from Kenya who fled his country due to persecution for his human rights activism in the 1990s, said he was thankful to formally become a citizen.
He came to St. Francis Xavier University to study international development and was accepted as a refugee in 2011, becoming an active volunteer in Oxfam in Halifax.
He said Trump's immigration policies are worrying, but he has doubts Canadians will embrace a similar approach.
"The right is entitled to their political thought, this Trumpism ... but in terms of human rights issues, they're off the mark," he said during an interview.
"It's basic economics. Canada is a big country, you need a labour force. Immigration has more pros than cons," he said. "It's just common sense."
The ceremony was also a reminder of the wide differences in the various refugee programs Canada participates in.
The seven-member Baral family attended the ceremony to accept their citizenship -- after 22 years in a Nepalese refugee camp.
The Bhutanese refugees moved to the Jhapa refugee camp in Nepal, after the Bhutanese government's efforts to impose a single national culture and language led to the displacement of over 100,000 ethnic Nepalese from Bhutan to Nepal between 1988 and 1993.
Yamuna Baral, 19, and her sister Manisha, 12, were born in the camp and lived their lives there until they along with their parents, brother, grandmother and mother were allowed to enter Canada under a Canadian initiative for Bhutanese refugees in 2011.
"This is a happy moment for us ... Before we didn't have citizenship of any country. I think we'll find our identity now," said Yamuna as Monday's ceremony came to a close.