Confronting and shaping our experience with refugees

Refuge Canada, an exhibition at the Museum of Vancouver, details the experiences refugees have faced from deciding to leave their home country to settling in Canada.

Denise Fong, curator of urban cultures at the Museum of Vancouver, says the exhibit is meant to help visitors connect with the individual stories and challenges of refugees – both their own perceptions of refugees and the refugees’ actual experiences.

“Vancouver is a very interesting context. Even as diverse as we are as a city, even people and staff in the museum, with families with a history of immigration and refugees, related directly to the story and to see it represented at the museum,” says Fong. “With so many immigrants and refugees, the story is different, yet the challenges of a new country, and how to integrate, resonated with people.”

The refugee experience in Canada – bringing life to the past and challenging our future

Curated by researchers examining the oral history collection of interviews with refugees at Halifax’s Pier 21 Canadian Museum of Immigration, the exhibit will visit over fourteen museums across Canada. After looking at 35 major waves of immigration, and reviewing them according to size, the researchers focused on six major waves. They examined the experiences of the refugees and of Canadian perceptions and attitudes toward them.

Photo by Christian Zane Clado, courtesy of the Museum of Vancouver

The resulting exhibit showcases the themes of ‘Life Before’, ‘Fear’, ‘Displacement’, ‘Refuge’ and ‘Life in Canada.’ That allows visitors a better understanding of Canada’s place in the current refugee crisis.

Many reasons why refugees leave their homeland are tied to their identity and the conflicts they face, such as religious affiliation or gender-based discrimination. The exhibit shows what they go through from being refugees to becoming Canadian. As Fong puts it, “to challenge the notion – the refugee narrative – to reinforce and retell as part of the refugee identification process.”

Fong points out that the connection between museum visitors and the exhibit comes through the visitors’ immersive experience. Videos, photos, text, and displays allow them to sit, reflect, and interact.

“Two living rooms, side by side – the before and after – where people live there before – the conflict in war – bombed or destroyed by fire, the recognizable elements, the after picture with stories of traumatic experiences,” says Fong. “Nazi persecution of Jewish people, immersive exhibits – visual ways of how conflict impacts families, and that there is no choice in being a refugee. Forced to leave, making a decision to leave.”

Humanizing the experience: Layering the exhibit with refugee success stories

Fong points to examples of the museum’s programming, such as an event to celebrate the successes of refugees and of authors who have written two books on refugee families’ histories and the generational trauma resulting from losing family members. This adds layers to the exhibit and enables people to connect personally with the refugee story while challenging our concept of who a refugee is.

Fong says that refugees have overcome significant challenges and the variety of different public attitudes about refugees, which the exhibit explores.

“Support relies on private sponsorships, churches, social support and integration to feel more welcome… How can the government extend support in more systematic ways, how can we raise awareness from those sleeping on the street, without food?” asks Fong.

Fong points out that many refugees navigate challenges and uncertainty to become very successful leaders in arts and culture, business, and politics. These narratives and encouraging stories, such as the one featured in the exhibit, challenge our perceptions of what a refugee is, and the impact they have had on society and culture.

Fong says that the combined effort of the exhibit and the museum programming humanizes the experience, bringing the experiences of the refugees to life.

“The refugee experiences are different without prior knowledge of the topic. We only get a varied viewpoint – who they are, what motivated them. It doesn’t show 20 or 30 years later who they have become. We need to surface these stories to engage,” says Fong. “These high-level themes resonate and create a space to connect with stories.”

Update: Refuge Canada is extending its closing day from Feb 2 to Feb 4. For more information, please visit: