In the suburbs of Burnaby, Edmonds Community School found itself with one-third of its student body newly arrived in Canada as refugees. They came from some of the most conflict-ridden parts of the globe such as Sudan, the Congo, Afghanistan, Eritrea, and Iraq. David Starr, who was principal of the school for four years, was inspired to author a book, From Bombs to Books, to share the stories of the refugees he met. Starr will lead a discussion of the book’s contents at the Vancouver Public Library Central Branch on June 10.
From refugee camps to Canadian schools
Amelmadug, the mother of two of his students, approached Starr one day and told him her story of walking 1,000 kilometers from civil war-torn Sudan to Ethiopia at the age of 14. She then spent 20 years in refugee camps before finding her way to Canada with her children. All of the families Starr met wanted to share their stories for different reasons, from preserving the memories of a loved one to simply informing the world.
Refugees are individuals who, due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, categorization in a certain social group or war, are no longer able to stay in their home countries. According to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Canada welcomes more than 12,000 refugees annually and provides asylum to over 10,000 individuals.
“The Canadian population as a whole doesn’t understand or appreciate what these families have been through. There might be a preconceived notion that they come from some sort of deficit background but many of the families are highly educated people. And whether they are or not, they are all people who have endured significant loss and repression,” Starr explains.
Refugee children entering the Canadian school system have very different needs than the average student. Many have grown up in refugee camps with no access to education, or have had their education interrupted. They now have to deal with learning and understanding the school system in an unfamiliar environment. On top of that, many suffer from trauma or mental health issues due to the experiences they endured at an early age.
“They’ve been through a lot so it becomes a question of getting to know the kids and having the right people to support them on their journey,” explains Starr.
New lives, new challenges
In 2012, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that globally, there were 15.4 million refugees. The UNHCR marks World Refugee Day on June 20 each year to bring attention to the plight of families impacted by war and conflict, and to their amazing ability to overcome these challenges. By writing From Bombs to Books, Starr is also trying to focus attention on refugees by highlighting the human element in past and ongoing conflicts, and reminding us of the modern day challenges that we can see right in our own communities.
“These refugee families are a living testament to the crises that happen in the world. We are part of a global community and we have a responsibility that extends beyond our borders to support people” says Starr.
As part of the lead-up to World Refugee Day, the Vancouver Public Library (VPL) has invited Starr to discuss From Bombs to Books on June 10. Starr sees the event, titled Sharing Stories and Honouring Journeys, turning into an informal forum, where the curiosities of the audience will shape the night. He hopes to contribute in his own way to creating social and educational policies that help these refugees adjust. One of the issues Starr highlights is that these families are not just starting a new life with nothing, but in-debt as they must repay the Canadian government their flight fee, with interest. The upcoming conversation at VPL is an opportunity to get a glimpse into the resilience of refugees, the hardships they face and how our local society reacts to these challenges.
For more information, see the events calendar at www.vpl.ca.