Culture
Cody Punter

Yellowknife Is Home: Refugees Tell Their Stories

This city has been welcoming people dispossessed by war and crisis for decades. Cody Punter asks some of them to tell us how and why they ended up here. Portraits By Angela Gzowski

Over the last few months, the global refugee crisis has dominated headlines. As Canada welcomes its first planeload of Syrian refugees to its shores, EDGE sat down and talked with some Yellowknifers who’ve fled war-torn countries. They explain in their own words why they left, and why they call this city home.

Editor’s note: Interviews have been edited for clarity.

Said Mohamed, Eritrea. Arrived 2007

When Said Mohamed was 13, war broke out between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1998, and he was conscripted into the army. When he was 15, he was shot in the back during an ambush on his unit that left five others dead. After being in a coma for six weeks and spending a year in bed recovering, he was moved to a UNHCR camp in Ethiopia before being transferred to Canada. Since coming here in 2006, he has visited every province and territory except for the Yukon. He arrived in the NWT just a few months ago. He says he has been holding off on applying for Canadian citizenship until he has seen the entire country.

I was born and raised in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. When I was younger my hobby was being a soccer player, but then I ended up in the military. Everyone in Ethiopia and Eritrea was at war for three years. I was supposed to go and play soccer in Uganda, but when the war started they said: “No more Uganda, we’re going to war.”

I got put in the military when I was 13 years old. When I was 15, I was shot in the back in Ethiopia. Getting shot is horrible. They were taking out the metal from my back. I was in a coma for six weeks and for one year I was in bed. It was a horrible, horrible, horrible experience.

Then the Red Cross transferred us to the UNHCR, which opened a refugee camp in Ethiopia. I was in there until 2006, and they gave me four options: you can go to Canada, America, New Zealand or Australia. I searched those countries and I heard somebody say “America doesn’t go with you because you are a soft-hearted person. Canadians have the same heart as you, so you have to go to Canada.”

I said okay. I did interviews, then I came to Toronto on November, 1, 2007. I went to Vancouver for six months. In 2008 I was in Calgary to earn money because I need money to send back home. Then the recession hit, I was laid off. My friend told me there’s a job where they pay you $14 an hour just to stand in front of a door and they pay for your house and your food. So the Frobisher Inn hired me and I ended up in Iqaluit.

I met my girlfriend. We used to have a nice life and she was pregnant with my son. When he was born I called him Adam, because Adam was the first human being. But my girlfriend wanted to call him something too, and I said of course, he’s not only mine, he’s yours too. By the way she’s not Muslim, she’s Christian [and Inuit]. So she called him Panniuq. Until he was one year old, I was there. But then things started. You know, family stuff. It didn’t work out.

In 2014, I moved from Iqaluit to Saskatchewan. When I was in Regina. something clicked in my mind, because people were telling me I didn’t know anything [about Canada]. I try to know everything. One truck driver I met, I told him that must be a good job. He said, “Ya, you don’t know shit.” I said, “I have my Class 2, I can drive a bus,” and he said “Let’s see what we can do,” and I got my Class 1,

When you want to become a citizen, there’s a book they send to you: Discover Canada. So you read the book, then you know the answers, but do you know what? Do you feel what Canadians feel? You might know what kind of food is in Canada but did you taste it? I ate raw meat with Inuit people, I’d never eaten that before. I’ve done a lot of things Inuit people do.

I worked as a volunteer firefighter in Calgary and Nunavut. I’ve worked in homeless shelters. And I’ll tell you something I’ve never told anybody: I go to a hospital in every city I visit to ask people how are they doing, and to tell them there is hope and that tomorrow is another day.

So after that, I said if I see all of Canada, I know Canadians. I know Canadian history, where we began and where we are now.

But I’d never been to Yellowknife, so I said I have to come. I’ve been in YK one month. I’m going to be proud of myself if I can do the ice road, I want to do that because if any human being can do it, I can do it too. I just want to work.

My mission here is to work like everybody, to serve the community, to feel the community. After that I can say I’m proud of being Canadian. That’s why I haven’t done any test for citizenship. If I get my citizenship now, I can say I’m a citizen of Canada because I know all the regions, I know all the country, I know all the territories.

Ngan Trinh with her family: “I just want people to know that no one wants to leave their home.”

Ngan Trinh, Vietnam. Arrived 1982

Ngan Trinh left Vietnam with her parents and one of her brothers when she was just four years old. Her younger brother, who now runs a successful electrical business in Yellowknife had to stay behind because he was sick and unable to travel. The family was eventually reunited in Calgary, and then moved up to Yellowknife. More than 30 years later, Trinh works for the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, while raising two children with her Quebecois husband.

I’m originally from Vinh Long, about two hours south of Ho Chi Minh City in the Mekong Delta area. I was four years old when I left, so unfortunately I don’t remember much. My parents lived through the war. They weren’t persecuted so much. but there weren’t any opportunities in Vietnam and they were seeing their neighbours thrown in jail for no reason. They feared something unpredictable could happen to them at any point. They had witnessed atrocities and they just wanted a better future.

My father’s uncle was a mechanic. He purchased old, decrepit boats. He would fix them up and sell spots on them to people wanting to leave Vietnam. If you had a lot of money, you would contribute a significant amount, but he actually let a lot of people on for free because they didn’t have any money.

We left Vietnam late at night, with 52 people on the boat in total. There were about 15 kids. We were on the boat for five days and six nights, but we only had food and water for three days, so we were all really dehydrated and starving by the time we got to the Indonesian refugee camp. I don’t remember much about being on the boat. People were just really hungry and it was really crowded.

We were, thankfully, so lucky, because other people drowned or were captured by pirates or were killed. Lots and lots of people. I think they estimate 60,000 people left Vietnam, there’s probably 60,000 people who perished as well.

We left Vietnam on February 26, 1982, and then we stayed in a refugee camp until July 29, 1982. From there, my uncle was already living in Calgary, so we were actually sponsored by him. My parents had a bit of cash and some jewelry with us. We were exceptionally lucky that the Canadian government opened their doors for people fleeing that situation.

We arrived in Calgary when I was in Grade 2 and we moved to Drumheller. My dad worked in a plastic factory there. There was a nice lady from the Anglican Church who helped my mom find a dishwashing job at the local inn. While they were there, they met a Yellowknife family vacationing there and they said ‘There’s lots of jobs and there’s actually a restaurant opening called Our Place and they’re hiring cooks, do you want to come up?’

When we first moved here, there were five of us living in a one-bedroom apartment, but my parents somehow paid for piano, ballet, jazz, and took us to all those lessons. My parents were such incredible hard workers, and they put us through everything even though they didn’t have a lot of money.

People here were so, so nice to us. People used to sew my costumes because my parents were working all the time. Jan Stirling was such an incredible mentor to all the people who came here. She convinced my parents to put me in French immersion. So my older brother and I were put through the program at Sissons.

I don’t remember any racist incidents. Maybe a few. But I think I’ve had more racist incidents down in Alberta than up here. We integrated really well and people were really interested in our culture.

I was raised here, I went to high school here, graduated here and then I went to take writing and producing for television in Calgary for a few years. I went to the University of Calgary for a few years to study communications, then I worked on the Hill as a parliamentary intern, and then I went to graduate school in Concordia, where I did a masters in media studies.

Yellowknife has been great to me, so I was more than happy to come back. This is where I wanted to raise my family. My husband is from Montreal, but I convinced him to come up and he loved it here. He considers this home now too. This is what I know and this what I love.

Nowadays, I volunteer a lot, my brothers volunteer a lot, they’re super-involved in our community. There’s a lot of Vietnamese people in the community. The majority of them are very successful, they have businesses. There’s a Vietnamese cultural association that gives back to the community. Their kids play on sports teams. They do everything else that other Canadians do.

Right now, there’s just this fear but [refugees] are probably going to do the jobs that no Canadians want to do anyways. They’re here, they’re ready to work, they just want to contribute and make a better life for themselves and their children.

At the end of the day, all of us come from different parts of the world. Unless you’re a beaver or an Aboriginal person, you’re an immigrant in this country.

I don’t have anything profound to say. I just want people to know that no one wants to leave their home. Most of these people are fleeing war and oppression and they just want a chance. They leave because they have no choice or because they’re in danger or because they feel threatened. People just want an opportunity to be safe.

 

Aman Hassen: “I miss my home, but it’s better here.”

Aman Hassen, Ethiopia. Arrived 2006

Aman Hassen is originally from Ethiopia. In the midst of the Ethiopian/Eritrean war in 1999, he fled his hometown of Addis Ababa to Kenya, before moving to Uganda, where he lived as a refugee for several years until he and his wife were sponsored to come to Canada. Hassen came up to Yellowknife to work at the Explorer Hotel. He is currently the kitchen manager at Zehabesha, a much-loved Ethiopian restaurant on 50 Street.

I was born and raised in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia. I was a student in my second year of university. The political situation is not good back home. We don’t have the right to freedom, political freedom, any kind of freedom. It’s very hard to live over there. That’s why I left my country more than 15 years ago.

First I went to Kenya. I was in Kenya for five or six years, in Nairobi as a refugee with the UNHCR. I was trying to survive and work to pay the rent, because I have to survive. But it’s very hard to live in Kenya because of police harassment. Whether you are legal or illegal, if they get you they’re going to arrest you and you pay money. It’s a corrupt country. It’s scary just to walk there.

After 2001, I moved again to Kampala, Uganda. For almost six years I stayed there until I came to Canada. When I was living in Kampala I was just working: construction, sometimes painting and other things.

I was married. My wife got sponsorship from her family [in Canada]. They processed the papers for us and we filled them out and we sent them back to Canada. After that, they need all your criminal records and everything. When they finish you do an interview. After one year of waiting, we flew to Winnipeg in 2006.

When I came to Winnipeg, it was very hard for me. The change of life and the weather; it was wintertime. Then I moved to Calgary: anywhere, any day, you could get a job there. But the recession was coming and I got laid-off.

I have to work. Ever since I came to Canada, I’ve worked. I ended up getting sponsored by the Explorer Hotel. I started to work there and Javaroma, doing bakery and cooking. In the morning until 11 a.m. I would bake and cook at Javaroma. Then in the afternoon I’d work at the hotel. I also worked for Aurora security. Now I’m the kitchen manager at Zehabesha.

I got divorced. Almost three years ago, I went on holidays back home, then remarried. We met and now she’s back home in Ethiopia. I send money for her because she doesn’t have a job, she’s just a housewife. We have a daughter, she’s almost one years old. I’m starting the process of bringing them together to Canada.

I miss my home, but it’s better here. I’m very, very, very lucky in this country. I’m not scared, I’m working, you have the right to freedom of speech. It’s very hard in the Middle East and Northern Africa. I don’t know what the aim of ISIS is…. They don’t even have a clue why they kill innocent people. They are the devil for me. There are so many innocent people but there are also bad people, it’s hard to separate. I feel for those kids, old people, old mothers, old fathers, because they don’t have the power to run from the wars. But my mind isn’t on that. I just need to bring my family here.

I like Yellowknife, I’ve been here since 2009, almost six or seven years. There’s peace, thanks to god. The only thing is the weather. My plan now is just to stay here in Yellowknife and raise my family. It’s better to live together with your family. That’s the meaning of life.