Home is where the heart is. Or so they say. For migrants and refugees home is something left behind, something that must be recreated anew. A process that is painful and frightening. And also one of profound optimism. It is an expression of the hope and belief in the ability to create a better life.
Today there are 60 million refugees worldwide and an even greater number of economic migrants. A number too vast to fathom. It represents almost twice as many people as live in Canada. These men, women and children are on the move, in camps, and dispersed. They have lost everything. And must find a way to rebuild.
Some of the luckiest come to Canada. A few weeks ago I was invited to an exquisite and moving exhibition at York University. A New Home, A New Opportunity is an interdisciplinary student led show. The students are all first and second generation Canadians, who after seeing the plight of Syrian refugees in the news, decided to personalize the refugee and migration experience. To literally put a face on it. So with the help of Professor Megan Davies, they curated a show which features treasured objects that both express their new Canadian identity and memories of a life left behind.
One of the student organizers, Sumaya Abdullahi believes that the objects both represent the diversity of York student’s backgrounds and provide relatable talking points for other students. “This project is very personal to each and everyone of us, as our parents, grandparents and/or ancestors have either migrated/immigrated or sought refuge in Canada. There is not a single story that represents us all.”
On the day I visited, I was lucky enough to meet the students featured below.
Millicent’s mother gave her gold hoop earrings to remind her of Ghana, where her parents came from and the hardships they endured to provide a better life for her and her siblings. The earrings, which she is wearing, remind her of what they went through on her behalf. “If you truly want something never give up. If my parents had given up I cannot say I would actually be here at York University.”
Daniel’s father left post-war Italy with his parents in search of a better life in Toronto. This Cornicello or Little Horn pendant is considered a good luck charm in Italy. “It was given to me by my dad who wanted to remind me where I came from and the journey my parents went through. It protects the wearer form the evil eye.”
Colleen’s mom came from Jamaica. When she arrived in Toronto, she met a woman on a TTC bus and the two became such fast friends, she became Colleen’s God Mother and gave her this doll. “When you have to leave your family behind, and then you meet someone from back home, it is almost like meeting your family.”
For Maryam, simple, delicious green raisins are precious. “The raisins are given to guests when they come into your home. They allow migrants and refugees to feel connected to a larger network of Afghan families.”
Due to the strong positive response from her fellow students, Sumaya plans to mount the exhibit again in the fall, at the beginning of the new school year. “We would like to provide a pathway to tolerance and remind others of the importance and benefits of the Canadian mosaic.” She is ambitious and dreams of taking the show off campus and on road.
The 8-minute documentary that accompanies the exhibition features York students who have immigrated to Canada. It was produced in collaboration with Yorks Film Department.
When Emily Antze (seated above) heard about the student’s exhibition, she felt it was a natural fit with the work York University’s Centre for Refugee Studies. York has a student campus in Dabaab, the largest refugee camps in the world – providing shelter to 350,000 people. Last fall 59 Dabaab students received a York University Certificate of Completion in Educational Studies. They are the first graduates of a unique program designed to take post-secondary education to where refugees live. Thee students were taught both online and in person by members of York’s Faculty of Education. The new certificate program is part of the Borderless Higher Education for Refugees (BHER) project.