Every refugee has a name, a face, and a story.
Nothing demonstrated that more than the photographs of two-year-old Alan Kurdi. The image of his lifeless body washed ashore a Turkish beach triggered massive public outrage and pushed the debate about Canada’s Immigration and Refugee policies into the spotlight.
It derailed the 2015 federal election campaign for a short time, with party leaders forced to address the deepening Syrian and Iraqi refugee crisis.
Refugees come to Canada from all over the world, every day.
Some have fled from war and internal conflict, while others are forced to leave their homes because of human rights abuses.
Over the past month, CKNW’s Shelby Thom followed one refugee as he navigated his way through the arrival process in Vancouver. Here is his story.
Meet Malcom Atia
Malcom Atia isn’t your average 20-year -old Vancouverite.
On September 9th, Malcom arrived in Vancouver as a government-sponsored refugee after a long and painful journey from Kampala, the Capital City of Uganda, and the place he once called home.
Faced with unthinkable violence at the hands of his own family; shunned and exiled for being homosexual, he had no choice but to flee.
Atia was raised by his aunt and after his parents died when he was just a child. He kept his sexual orientation a secret, because being openly gay in Uganda is a crime.
Repression intensified last February, when the president signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act.
It was around the same time Atia’s aunt discovered his secret diary.
“I used to write [in] this diary, because I knew that somewhere, somehow, it was my only companion. It was the only thing that understood me. I used [to] write in every feeling, everything I am going through, and how I expect to persevere. I use to write in the crushes I had, how I wish I could get married very soon. [Then] I accidently forgot to close the drawer where I kept the diary, it contained by secrets. She [Aria’s aunt] came across it, she gave me that look of disdain, she said ‘Malcom, do you have sex with men?’”
Soon, Atia’s uncle learned of the diary, and responded in a fit of rage.
“He [ Atia’s uncle] told me to open the door or else he was going to kick it down. I refused. He kicked it down and beat me so hard; tied my hands to the refrigerator, my legs to the big sofa so I couldn’t move, and then he beat me until I was numb. He stepped on my head twice, until I was unconscious.”
Atia’s uncle called a family meeting, to determine his punishment.
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“He told them how I’m the devil’s son. How I am a disgrace to the family. He came up with two punishments. One, I was to be lashed thirty strokes in the back, the other I was to be taken to a juvenile prison to be electrified with electricity. I told them you might kill me, you might do anything you want, but you can’t change me, If I die right here, still I will be a gay corpse, so that is me.”
Desperate but determined to survive, Atia fled to Nairobi, Kenya, before seeking help from the United Nations.
He was placed in the Kakuma refugee camp, where he spent more than a year waiting for a better life.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Representative in Canada, Furio de Angelis, says it took Atia’s sexual orientation into account when determining which country he would be sent as a permanent resident.
“If possible, refugee’s wishes in terms of resettlement opportunities are taken into consideration. In a gay context, Vancouver appears to be a resettlement place where gay people may find it welcoming.”
Arriving in Vancouver
Atia’s first few days in Canada are a whirlwind as he settles into temporary accommodation and gets orientated.
Upon arrival at the airport, he is taken to Welcome House, run by the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. That’s where we caught up with him.
The diminutive building sits nestled between towering skyscrapers at Drake and Seymour, its small and primitive rooms providing temporary shelter to government-sponsored refugees during their first few weeks in Canada.
Atia gets a crash course on how to be a Canadian citizen from African Communities Counsellor, Adan Sallow.
“We give them three to four sets of orientation. One is how to live in Canada, in particular how to live in Vancouver, a financial orientation, more basic financial literacy, how to use the banking system, and Canadian currency.”
How to walk across an intersection, ride a bus, grocery shop, use a debit machine, it’s all new to Atia.
As is a new form of income.
Under the Federal Resettlement Assistance Program , government-sponsored refugees like Atia receive income support that mirrors the province’s welfare rates. It’s not a lot, but it’s a start until Atia can secure employment.
“The regular monthly benefits, food and basic needs $235, rent $450, transportation $125. Vancouver is pretty expensive; I’ll have to balance to let this money sustain me for a month. The rent, the food, the transportation, and maybe get a job.”
Director of Settlement Services, Chris Friesen, is advocating for an increase in provincial welfare rates.
“We have to look at, as a community, whether the current welfare rates are adequate to meet individual needs. Just like B.C. residents, government-assisted refugees are spending upwards of 60-70 % of their monthly income support on meeting their shelter needs. I believe income support, [and] welfare rates need to be raised for everyone in this province.”
Malcom Atia is also burdened by thousands of dollars in transportation loans he is required to pay back the Canadian government.
But now, after just one week in Canada, his only focus is to find a place to live, for just 450 dollars a month.
Finding a place to call home
Vancouver’s notorious sky-high housing prices and rental rates mean the majority of refugees who come to B.C. settle in Surrey, Coquitlam and Burnaby.
But Atia, awe-struck by Davie Village where he is celebrated rather than ridiculed, wants to live nearby.
He turns to Craigslist and finds a room for rent in an East Vancouver home. He’ll share the street-level floor with two other tenants, for $440/month.
It’s risky, according to Housing Search Worker Slavica Stevanovic, who fears refugees could end up in unsafe households without a screening process or background checks of prospective landlords and other tenants.
“I am always afraid of it. That’s why before I start to look for a room for single people, I try to find someone who is our client, to be honest, more than through Craigslist. There is no policy, because it’s about privacy.”
On September 24th , just two weeks after Atia first arrives in Canada, he packs up all of his belongings in four small bags and leaves the Welcome House for the last time.
Twenty-year-old Atia is given twenty dollars for a cab, and sent off to his new home in an unfamiliar neighbourhood, alone.
“I’m nervous, I’m happy at the same time, so mixed feelings. I’ve been used to the Welcome House, so right now I’m heading to independence, which is kind of weird.”
Living the dream
Two weeks after 20-year-old Ugandan refugee Malcom Atia first stepped foot in B.C., Atia is settling in nicely.
He’s even had his first kiss.
“It’s like seeing a Disney movie. He has these chiseled lips, and they are touching mine, and we all get lost into each other, I can’t explain it, but I loved every minute of it.”
The aspiring actor and musician also has big dreams for his future.
“I want to go to school, study, do theatre arts, become an amazing actor, maybe get an Oscar for Vancouver! People told me ‘Malcom, you are centered in music. They told me, you have an amazing voice.’”
And that Oscar for Vancouver may not be far from reach now that Atia has connected with staff at the Art Institute of Vancouver.
President Brian Parker says Atia showed up at their front doors.
“I actually greeted him, just standing there not knowing what to do. He was standing there with his purple hat, he looked like one of our students. He decided he’d love to join.”
Looking to the future
On Friday October 2nd, dressed in his plaid shirt, skinny jeans, blue scarf and purple sunglasses, Atia entered the Art Institute of Vancouver.
Last month, he was living in a refugee camp. Today is his first day of acting school.
Parker says the Institute will help him apply for scholarships, and grants.
“This is our first quarter that we are rolling out our acting program, which is unique too, is that he came in for that. We were set with our program, we have a good cast of students, and out of nowhere, he came in.”
Exiled to embraced, Atia’s journey to resettlement continues.
His resiliency is undeniable, and his story is just one of thousands. On average, B.C. receives a little more than 1,600 refugees each year.
Over the past decade, the province has welcomed around 7% of the national total.
Click on the photo gallery to enlarge the photos: