Interview with Ratna Omidvar
Dana: Ratna, you had the idea for this book at an interesting time. Why is it important to write this book now?
Ratna: For several years now, the national attitude towards refugees has been hardening. We see it most clearly in the changes to Canada’s refugee system at the federal level, where refugee policy gets decided. It is now harder for refugees to get to Canada, and more difficult for them once they are here. There are many reasons why this shift has occurred. But I do not think that one of those reasons is because Canadians are less willing to open our doors to refugees today than we were ten, twenty or sixty years ago. Why? Because we still believe in protecting vulnerable people, and we still value the extraordinary potential of people who have survived the worst of humanity. So if our compassion hasn’t changed, maybe it’s about better understanding the refugee process, and refugees themselves. And to do that, maybe we need to dust off the stories of refugees who survived the Holocaust, or the Vietnam War, or Year Zero in Cambodia. That’s why we’re writing this book.
Dana: You think these stories need revisiting? Explain.
Ratna: You know what I find interesting? That we call ourselves a country of immigrants, and we are, but we’re also a country of refugees. We need to remind ourselves of that. The Canadian narrative overflows with qualities perhaps best known within the immigrant success story: perseverance, resolve, creativity, equanimity. Well, we don’t always think of it this way, but these qualities are radiant in refugees who find haven in this country. Part of the importance of revisiting our history is that it helps us think long-term about refugees who are arriving today. We have a tendency to think about refugees as they are when they arrive, so we picture them struggling economically and psychologically. We see them as poor and traumatized. But the transformation that can happen in one generation, and in some cases, in a few years’ time, is simply astounding. The book gives us the long-term picture. It’s a continuum of refugees who are in different stages of their lives in Canada.
Dana: What does that transformation look like?
Ratna: When your life is threatened, there’s barely time to pack a suitcase. Many people leave behind everything. Wealth, assets, family. There’s no language course beforehand. No cultural training. Some people step off an airplane in Vancouver or Toronto still in a daze from their escape. But freedom is a powerful thing, and refugees thrive with it. Imagine coming from a place where your children were barred from school, you were barred from a job, your health was expensive, voicing an opinion was unthinkable, and surviving each day was uncertain. Now, imagine these conditions are replaced with access to things, freedom from other things, and opportunity beyond anything that was possible before. So it shouldn’t be surprising that refugees do great things, like start companies, raise talented kids, and empower others. But opportunity isn’t all that drives refugees. There’s something about people who survive. There’s a strength of spirit that I think comes with extreme endurance, which makes refugees really exceptional people.
Dana: You’re describing something that’s very intimate, because you and your husband fled Iran in 1981 as refugees. What do you want Canadians to know about the experience of flight?
Ratna: Yes, these stories are close to my heart. My husband and I made our own escape from Iran when it became clear our lives were not safe under Tehran’s new rulers. We couldn’t raise a family the way we wanted, and war with Iraq threatened to call my husband to the frontline. So we boarded a bus to Turkey with our young daughter, found our way to Germany, and ultimately decided on Canada. Our escape does not approach the danger and hardship so many others face fleeing countries worldwide including Iran. But a few of the most vivid moments of my life occurred on that journey. One was in a cold customs room at the border crossing with Turkey, when our future was uncertain. Forward, or back? What punishment would we face for attempted escape? The second was in a plane, over a vast land of forests broken by silver lakes. In Canadian skies, I began to breathe again.
This glimpse of the terror involved in escape, and the unparalleled exhilaration of freedom, does not fade fast. It’s in everything, a permanent imprint behind my eyelids. There has been a deep link for me between the personal and the professional from my family’s experience. I embraced this country, and because of what it gave me – its protection and opportunities – I will always strive to change it for the better. After a time, I gave myself license to start rearranging the furniture in my new home. The desire to thrive and to give back is palpable in refugees who come to Canada. We think of refugees taking and needing, but they enrich our communities in incredible ways.
Dana: There has been public concern about non-refugees using, or “abusing”, the refugee system. Does this book skip some big questions by only looking at people who fit the legal definition of a refugee?
Ratna: The book shows the diversity of people who are refugees under Canadian law. That great diversity, and all the nuances of their lives and choices and even modes of transit, builds a more complex picture of refugees. In this way, I think the book does challenge us to rethink refugees and what we’re talking about when we say things like “abusing the system.” No, we’re not skipping big questions. We’re asking: What does “abusing the system” mean? Someone who flew directly to Canada instead of sitting in a refugee camp for five years? Someone who paid $23,000 to smugglers to cross a border? Someone who used a fake passport? The book profiles these people.
Dana: It goes further though. A central question is: “Would they get in today?” Why ask that?
Ratna: First of all, because the refugee system is quite different today due to recent changes. Second, I think that a lot of Canadians respond to the idea of fairness. Somehow, our idea of fair behaviour has been twisted in the refugee conversation to mean waiting in a refugee camp, having all the right paperwork, and never lying about one’s identity. That’s not fair – that’s completely unrealistic. The same rules that apply to getting your driver’s license do not apply to escaping for your life. I think Canada’s new refugee system is less fair. We can better understand why when we see exactly how system changes affect individuals. Some of the people profiled in the book would not get in today. Some of them, in fact, would still qualify as refugees, but many of them would have a far harder time finding their feet in Canada because of changes to the system like reduced healthcare and longer waiting times to qualify for permanent residence and citizenship.
Dana: Who do you want the book to reach?
Ratna: Well, this is a truly Canadian book. These stories cover such a breadth of Canadian history that we are all either directly linked to one of these stories, or a few degrees removed. Maybe your family came from Europe after the Second World War, or fled one of the Soviet satellites. Maybe you remember your community’s effort to support the Southeast Asian boat people in the 1980s, or you live down the street from a family expelled from Uganda, or you work with someone who fled Somalia. So I want this book to reach Canadians who know refugees, or who are refugees, and who want to place that experience in the bigger history of this country as a place of refuge. I also want this book to reach Canadians who don’t know much about refugees but are curious. And this book is for Canadians who love a good read, because these are true and very human stories.