& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Citizens of nowhere by Debi Goodwin

Guest post: 
Subhadeep Chakrabarti
(book review)

Canada is a nation of immigrants with a million different stories of loss and arrival, acculturation and adjustments. 

In her new book Citizens of Nowhere, former CBC journalist Debi Goodwin introduces us to an amazing group of young people who faced immense odds before starting their new lives in Canada. 

This is the story of African refugee youth who have been offered one of a few coveted positions in Canadian universities under the student refugee program called the SRP (together with permanent residence in Canada) that would be their only chance of escaping a life time of statelessness in UNHCR camps. 

Ms Goodwin follows 11 bright young people – eight men and three women, as they move from their wretched refugee camp to hopeful futures on Canadian campuses, leaving behind everything they had known in their short lives.

The story begins in Dadaab, the largest refugee camp in the world in the late summer of 2008. Dadaab is home to over a quarter million refugees, the vast majority of them Somalis fleeing a two decade long civil war. 10 of the 11 youths we meet in the book are Somalis, each born in the relative stability of late 1980s Somalia, who grew up knowing nothing but war and life in the refugee camps. 

The camp also houses a small number of political refugees from Ethiopia and Eritrea, including the 11th member of this group, an Oromo schoolteacher sent into exile for his political beliefs. 

Debi Goodwin meets these people for the first time when they have just learnt about their selection into the highly competitive program. As they discover more about their Canadian destinations and prepare for the long journey, these bright young people also face the certainty of leaving their old lives behind, possibly never to return. 

In the camps they had been among the best and brightest, working in UN sponsored projects as teachers, mediators and social workers; quite often they had been the only breadwinners. As the day of departure comes, most are emotional to leave behind their families (at least whatever is left of them-several are orphaned) and the only home they have known for much of their lives.

Goodwin travels with her subjects to Toronto, where the close-knit group is split up as they move on to different campuses across the breadth of the country. She notes the sense of wonder and bewilderment that faces these tough but smart people in their first few weeks as they navigate the initial settlement procedures and grapple with the pressures of student life. 

Most also feel pangs of homesickness yet reach out to other students in building friendships across the cultural divide. We meet some amazing helpful people in the campuses, students and staff alike, who try to do their best in helping these newcomers adjust to Canadian student life. 

Anyone who has been an immigrant or an international student would appreciate the challenges and tribulations faced by these brave young people in their first few weeks in the new world.

Over the next year, Goodwin follows up on the students as they settle down into their Canadian lives, do well in school, learn to cook, get jobs, send money to their families and get accustomed to their new lives. Some grapple with their religious traditions and identity, while others immerse themselves headfirst in the Canadian way of life. 

The stories that come out are those of a group of smart and resilient people who are determined to make the most out of the only chance at a decent normal life. 

By the end of the year, as they prepare to take on loans and jobs in order to be self-sufficient (student refugee program only provides full support for the first year in Canada), we find the youths at a far more confident state, assured of their own place in Canada.

As a former international student myself, I find the stories of these refugee youth extremely moving and inspiring. Kudos to Ms Goodwin for her awesome narrative and special thanks to the young men and women who agreed to share their lives with the world.

The student refugee program: http://www.wusc.ca/en/campus/students/SRP

Calcutta-born Dr Subhadeep Chakrabarti lives in Edmonton. He was a PhD student in the University of Calgary between 2002 and 2006.

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