In conversation with …
... is a series of first-person encounters with Canadians and their links to Hungarian culture, things, and ideas. It presents an eclectic mix of conversations with people of all ages and from all walks of life. Each conversation will be presented as a readable article that will also contain audio clips.
In conversation with Ratna Omidvar, co-author of Flight and Freedom. Stories of Escape to Canada
January 19th 2016
This book about refugee resettlement in Canada appeared in 2015, as the Syrian refugee crisis was fast becoming the foremost news story across the world and while the what-to-do-with-the-niqab fallout still lingered in Canadian headlines.
Instead of presenting a theoretical case for more humanitarian policies, Omidvar and Wagner let refugees tell their own stories. The book that they have produced is a series of compelling word-portraits. To read it is to meet 30 Canadians tell you about their mostly perilous - and always courageous – “flight” to a place of freedom: Canada. You also meet them through their photographic portrait. These are the work of students at Ryerson and their images are as compelling as the stories. Some are enigmatic evocations of people who want to share their story, but who in some cases still need to ensue their own safety. They are portrayed in symbol and in shadow in a book that is full of risk and danger.
Ratna Omidvar is personally familiar with the refugee experience – she calls it the “narrative of flight” that she shares with all the others in the book. “Although mine pales in comparison to the danger and drama that unfold in their stories,” she explains in her Preface. Born in Amritsar, she eventually left India, was studying in Germany where she married an Iranian who, during the Iranian Revolution and then, later, after the Iran-Iraq war, was no longer able to return to Iran. Germany would not take them in. Neither would Canada at first. Then, in 1981, after a second application, Canada said yes. Once settled, she soon became one of Canada’s foremost spokespersons on issues of immigrant integration, poverty, and inclusion, eventually running the Maytree Foundation, “committed to reducing poverty and inequality in Canada and to building strong civic communities,” according to its mission statement. She has dug deep into refugee and immigration issues and is now the Executive Director of Ryerson University’s Global Diversity Exchange, a program of the Ted Rogers School of Management. Her co-author, Dana Wagner, is the Exchange’s Senior Researcher.
Flight to Freedom spans time and space, in the sense that one family story-line traces back to the War of 1812, though most relate to more recent violent upheavals around the globe: in Latin America, South America, Africa, Asia, Europe, and, of course, the Middle East. The refugees portrayed in the book have settled in communities across Canada.
Is resettlement an urban initiative? To hear Ratna Omidvar’s explanation
Two of the people featured in the book came from Hungary, each one under very different circumstances. Andrew Hidi is a 56er and a highly successful entrepreneur. Roby Botos – a Roma, arrived in Canada in 1998, frightened by the increasing anti-Roma atmosphere he experienced in his homeland. It took five years and a deportation threat before he finally succeeded in getting Canada to acknowledge, in 2003, that he indeed risked discrimination and persecution if he were to return to Hungary with his family.
In an interview with CHEF, Ratna Omidvar explained why she chose these two Hungarians. “We wanted a story from 1956 because it was such a telling part of our history.” Like many of the best stories, she learned about Andrew Hidi’s “escape” quite by chance during a game of chance: they where playing bridge, a long time ago. “I didn’t know them very well, I still recalled the tension as they told that story - the intensity, the microscopic detail of that moment when they crossed the border.”
It was her interest in the story of the Roma that led her to Robi Botos. “I knew his music, his talent, his genius in music, but I didn’t know he’d come to Canada as a refugee,” she says. “His story is a story of renewal, renewal through this wonderful instrument that he plays, and renewal through the social capital that he gained through other artists and his fellow musicians who rooted for him and who would not give up. He was ready to be deported. His case was stayed and he was given leave to stay under a compassionate and humanitarian clause.”
There is risk, determination, and bravery in each of the 30 stories contained in this book. In their Preface, Omidvar and Wagner include the line: “Escape is not a straight line.” To hear more on that from Ratna Omidvar click here. (Runs: 53 seconds)
Has working on this book changed Ratna Omidvar’s thoughts on refugees?
“I think it’s very sad that we have more refugees than ever before, and decades of oppression, and decades of political corruption, and decades of political interference, and that we have not learned from that. As a result, we have more refuges today than since the Second World War. That must be a tragedy. But I also have a renewed sense of optimism in this country when I see what has happened in it since July of 2015. One picture of a little boy on a beach seems to have renewed and rekindled Canada’s sense of outrage, and Canada’s own willingness – and by Canada I mean the people. In Canada the people have been first and the government has followed. Now, with a new government, we are making strides that I would not have foreseen just a few months before that. So to answer a complex question, I would say I am pessimistic about the state of humanity in general. But (laughs) I am very optimistic that we will find our ‘refugee DNA’ again.”
Is there a difference in the way Canada welcomes an immigrant and a refugee? The answer might surprise you, but has something to do with DNA. To hear it
Flight and Freedom – Stories of Escape to Canada by Ratna Omidvar and Dana Wagner, is published by Between the Lines (2015). Their project has a website "Flight and Freedom".
“Note: On March 18, 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed Ratna Omidvar to serve as an independent member of the Senate of Canada. We would like to congratulate her and wish her well for this new responsibility to serve Canadians.”