Celebrating Refugee Rights

By: Marium Yousuf

On a beautiful, crisp sunny day last weekend, Amnesty International, Sojurn House, Culture Link and the Centre for Victims of Torture held an event in Toronto to mark Canada’s Refugee Rights Day (April 4). The tone was deliberately celebratory, with performances from the Nai Syrian Kids Choir, poet Ama Luna and poet/singer, song-writer Ruth Mathiang that left the audience captivated all afternoon.

The Nai Syrian Kids Choir immediately captured everyone’s attention as they streamed through the room in their yellow uniforms. Ranging between the ages from 6-12, it was hard to imagine that these smiling young faces had experienced war and loss, having recently resettled in Canada as Syrian refugees. The Choir is an initiative of Culture Link and serves as a space for children to deal with their loss, grief and hope through music, while their parents practice conversational English with ESL teachers. Their performances did not disappoint: singing songs in Arabic, French and English, while their beaming parents cheered them on.

Ama Luna, a spoken word poet from Hamilton did a special reading on belonging, and one’s identity. Ruth Mathiang, a former refugee who first came to Canada via a scholarship through WUSC (World University Service of Canada) performed songs inspired by Afropop and hip hop beats. With community members, activists, refugees and settlement workers together, a large mural was painted that was later gifted to Sojoun House, a shelter for refugees in Toronto. A solidarity action for children in immigration detention in the US was very well received, with many writing personal messages of support for those currently detained pending permanent residency. 

At a time when the world is grappling with the biggest refugee crisis in the world since World War II, compounded by the fear-mongering and rhetoric around refugee resettlement, it was a beautiful afternoon spent getting to know our neighbours in the community better, and realizing that we are far more alike than not. Consider this: the UNHCR notes that less than 1% of the world’s refugees are ever resettled. Right now only about 100,000 refugees are resettled annually – with the majority resettling in just 3 countries; United States, Canada and Australia. Globally, almost 1.2 million refugees of all nationalities will need resettlement in 2017, 40% of them Syrians.

With countries scrambling to build walls to prevent safe refuge to asylum seekers, to US President Trump’s executive orders suspending refugee resettlement for the time being, it is ever so important to continue raising awareness for refugees, debunking myths and stereotypes and allowing them the opportunities to tell their stories themselves, in their own words.