What do you picture when you see the word? I pictured it to be a family of eight or nine running across a bustling airport. Or perhaps the blurred face of an impoverished young boy in a UNICEF commercial. The term refugee was the foreign and distant concept; a label for people much different than I, in places much different from where I had grown up.
It wouldn’t be until my third year of high school when I would realize that my family and I had actually come to Canada as refugees.
Around this time last year, I was applying for scholarships, trying to assemble fragments of ambition and anxiety into a narrative. I settled on the classic immigrant tale of moving from a place that isn’t North America to a place that is, and tried to embed a feel-good message of growth and hope in a language I had come to own. I spoke of the people that made Toronto feel like home with an unabashed optimism. In reality, however, I knew very little of the circumstances that had brought me here.
You see, my family moved from Sudan to Canada when I was three years old. My father raised my four sisters for much of my childhood, and spent his days working jobs he was overqualified to do. He had once been a lawyer and political advocate. Now, he was content with a simpler life, perfectly embodying our image of the ‘good hardworking immigrant.’
He was, and still is, my biggest hero.
I remember sitting in my sister’s car when she began recounting the circumstances that had forced us to leave Sudan. The night we spent in an in-between home after first arriving in Canada. The harshness of our first winter. The day without power in our tiny three-bedroom apartment. I had always been someone with a very clear idea of my identity, but this news shook me to my very core. No longer was our story one of simple immigration. It was something more…twisted.
This realization made me question the way we look at refugees in this country. Although we all love the story of the underdog, we prefer one that does not make us feel too gloomy. While we eat up stories of the resilient immigrant family, we turn a blind eye to the thousands of refugees whose circumstances are dire. Even within immigrant populace areas, our perceptions of refugees are those of helpless, impoverished individuals who find their ways into Canada based on circumstance rather than ‘merit.’ This problematic view fuels apathy towards refugees, rather than helping them.
In many ways, I’m thankful to have only learned about our past circumstances later in life. It has allowed me to critically think about the concept of identity, and the way we treat those around us. More than anything, it ignited my passion in advocacy for refugees in Canada and allowed me to, for the first time in my life, truly own my label.