Written by Louise Simbandumwe
I became a refugee in 1972 — the day my mother received a letter informing her that her family members had been killed in massacres that claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people in Burundi. My parents were studying in India at the time and the letter warned that we would not be able to return home because my parents were also at risk. This devastating news was followed by years of insecurity and uncertainty, as my parents struggled to rebuild our shattered lives. We moved many times when I was growing up. I didn’t fully understand what had happened to my mother’s family but I was keenly aware that our presence was often greeted with hostility when we moved into a new community. We lived with the fear of being forced to return to Burundi. Being welcomed to Canada as refugees was like winning the lottery. It meant that we had finally found safety and security. I will always be grateful to Larry Scott, a United Church Minister from Canada; he convinced a group of churches in Saskatchewan to sponsor us. I am indebted to the strangers from the Souris Valley Presbytery who listened to Larry and decided to offer a lifeline to a family they had never met.
While words cannot express my appreciation for the opportunity to become a Canadian citizen, I am aware of the millions of refugees who were not as fortunate. I feel like I have escaped from a burning building. I am lucky to be alive but I know that there are many more who are still trapped in the building. Volunteering for Amnesty International allows me to play a role in stopping the atrocities that produce refugees in the first place. I have appreciated the opportunity to pay it forward by raising money to sponsor other refugees through World University Services Canada and Hospitality House Refugee Ministry. I am a founding member of the Families at Risk Refugee Sponsorship Committee and we are currently working on sponsoring two refugee families from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
My professional work in community economic development has also provided avenues to pay it forward by being part of creating more welcoming communities for refugees. I know from personal experience that healing from trauma and integrating successfully into Canadian life can be a challenging process. It has been gratifying to play a role in building initiatives such as the Strengthening Families in Canada program, the Immigrant Women’s Build-a-Business program and the Transportation Loan Repayment pilot project.
Creating a more welcoming Canada also means fighting for change at a policy level. When the government announced cuts to refugee health care in 2012, I got together with other concerned citizens to establish the Immigration Matters in Canada Coalition. We joined others across Canada to oppose these cuts and other policies that have undermined the rights of refugees. I am thrilled about the reinstatement of the Interim Federal Health program but there is still a lot more that needs to be done. I am deeply thankful to all Canadians who are working to protect the rights of refugees.