Burmese Refugees Struggle To Resettle In Canada

Burmese refugees struggle to resettle in Canada

By Marianne White
Canwest News Service
January 27, 2009
(Reprinted from January 3, 2009)

QUEBEC : Rahima Begum holds a crumpled sheet in her hands that seems to have been folded and looked at dozens of times.

She tells the translator it is a precious item. Its a pale photocopy of headshots of members of her family, including her mom, her dad, her sister and her children. There are 14 photos on the page.

They are the ones she left behind at a refugee camp in Bangladesh when she came to Quebec City a few weeks ago with her two children.

I miss them a lot, 21-year-old Rahima says through a translator.

She is part of a group of 54 refugees from Burma including 36 children and 14 women who have landed recently in Quebec thanks to a federal refugee program. They are among the first group of some 5,000 Rohingya people, a Muslim ethnic minority from western Burmas Arakan state, who will be coming to Canada in the next few years.

Rohingya refugees have been living in United Nations camps in the southern tip of Bangladesh for 17 years.

Originally from Burma (also known as Myanmar), they fled the ethnic and religious suppression of the Burmese military junta in the late 1970s and 1980s.

In 1991 over 260,000 Rohingya people settled in camps in Bangladesh. Some 27,000 of them are still living there today.

Rahima has lived in those camps since she was seven years old. It was difficult, she says. We were isolated and it was controlled. We couldnt go in and out as we wanted.

Tamira and Senoyra Begum the three women share the same last name but they are not related also spent most of their life in the camps. They got married and divorced there too.

The time spent with my husband was the worst, Tamira, 25, tells the translator Ashraful in a mix of Bengali and Rohingyalish language.

She explains that her husband beat her but she stops short of giving details. Its a long story. It will hurt and I will cry if I tell it, she says.

But Tamira and Senoyra are grateful to be in Canada now, far away from the dangerous conditions of the camps and their former husbands.

I hope my husband could read your story, Tamira says with a big smile. Senoyra nods her head in agreement. Its great here. Im very happy, she says. The children sleep like babies, she adds.

But their smile quickly fades away when they talk about the rest of their family. Rahima, Tamira and Senoyra came to Canada with their children, but they left their other loved ones behind.

Now that they are safe in their new adopted country and learning to cope with the winter Snow good, Rahima manages to say in English all they think about is bringing them to Canada.

When Immigration and Citizenship minister Jason Kenney paid a courtesy visit to the Burmese refugees in Quebec City recently he was assailed with questions. Can the rest of my family come here? What do I have to do?

The translator was relaying their concerns to the minister who refused to make any public commitment. We have a reunification program and you will be in a good position to help your family if you settle here and integrate well into your new country, Kenney told them. He stressed that learning one or both official languages and finding a job will be crucial to help them eventually sponsor their family to come to Canada.

But Ferid Chikhi, who heads the Quebec multi-ethnic centre that took charge of the Rohingyas, says it is hard for them to resettle and start a new life here without their family.

A new world is opening up to them, but they are uprooted from their relatives. They are deeply preoccupied about those left behind in difficult conditions, he says. In the refugee camps they had nothing, but at least they were together, he adds.

It could take years to help bring their families here because reunification programs are complicated and costly, said Dominique Lachance, assistant director at the multi-ethnic centre.

I wish that they would have moved entire families to Canada instead of hand-picking the ones who could come, she says.

The most vulnerable, women and children, have been selected via refugee programs.

Lachance told minister Kenney herself when he visited the centre that the Rohingyas could use some help from the government to facilitate the reunifications, such as special programs that were put in place to help groups of refugees from Bosnia in the 1990s.

Canada became the first country to resettle Rohingya refugees. In 2006 and 2007, approximately 100 were selected and they have resettled in Ontario.

In 2008, Canada has accepted approximately 55 more Rohingya refugees, who came to Quebec, and another group of 145 will be coming here in the next year.

Rahima, Tamira and Senoyra can only hope that their families will soon join them. Meanwhile, they are helping and supporting each other.

Im not worried for them, Lachance says. They are survivors.