“We stayed in Kenya as refugees, not as Kenyans”

Refugee student shines a light on what life as a refugee is like, and on moving to Thunder Bay

By Ashley Aalto, Staff Writer

With the arrival of refugees to Canada over the past year, there have been some less than ideal reactions from certain members of society, ranging from xenophobia and stereotyping, to hate crimes and uproar over social media. Many Canadian citizens have been supportive, but there are still people who are opposed to refugees immigrating into Canada.  Reasons for opposition may include: beliefs about the economic infeasibility of new migrants, ideas about a lack of room within the country, or simply misinformed fear. In an attempt to create a better understanding of the situations faced by many refugees across Canada, The Argus spoke with Becky, a Lakehead University international student who, in 2015, migrated to Thunder Bay from a Kenyan refugee camp.

Q: Hello Becky. I thought we could just jump right in, if that’s okay with you?

A: Yes, that’s fine.

Q: I know you came to Canada from Kenya…Would you like to tell me a bit about Kenya, and where you came to Kenya from?

A: Yes, I came from Kenya. I was staying in a refugee camp there. Originally I am from South Sudan, but I came to Kenya because there was a war. We stayed in Kenya as refugees, not as Kenyans.

Q: When did you move to Kenya?

A: I left South Sudan in 1999 and stayed in Kenya until 2015, so I was in the camp for 16 years.

Q: Do you know much about the conflict that was happening in South Sudan?
A: No, actually. I just know there was a war and that people had to move because it was not safe.

Q:  What did going to school look like in a refugee camp?

A: The schools in the camp were not that perfect. They were small schools. We had to go there and we had no uniforms; no anything. There were only a few books, and we would get things like pencils and paper once a year. The teachers were few, but there [were] a lot of students. The classrooms were really small, but there [were] a lot of children. It wasn’t that comfortable, but you know, we went to school.
Q: Did you have chores after school?

A: At home? Yes, we had chores because the water that we were using was a little bit far. It was [from] taps that you had to share with the community. It was timed, like two hours maybe, for a small community to go in there. It’s a big community but it’s divided into groups, so each group had their own tap. After school, we would have to go and bring water home. It was difficult to study after school because I had to get water everyday. I was the first born of six children in my family so I also did a lot of cooking and cleaning.

Q:  When was your time to study?

A: Actually, there [were] no lights or electricity. I could only study during the day. During the night you just had to chill. The neighbors would come over and tell stories until ten or eleven. There was a lot of people. It was always fun.

Q:  What was there in terms of food for the camp?

A: There wasn’t really a lot of food. Every fifteen days they would do the distribution. Everyone goes to a distribution centre with ration cards. The card says the number of members in your family and you get food based on how many members are in your family. We would get things like maize, flour, and beans; just dry goods. We wouldn’t get any fruits, vegetables, or meat.  If you wanted those things you had to get them yourself.

Q: Were you ever worried about your safety in the camp?

A: No, I feel like the camp I stayed at was actually good. There [were some unpleasant events], like raping and killing, but it wasn’t that much. Being in a refugee camp, there [are] a lot of different people; there are crazy people. You can go mad from thinking too much. People feel like their lives are not going anywhere so they feel like they can do some crazy things. You live with those kinds of people, so anything can happen.

There was a lot of raping, though. I went to the Angelina Jolie Boarding School for Girls, which was located in the middle of the forest.  You have to walk through the woods and cross a small river to go to school. The forest was dangerous because men would wait in there for school to get out and attempt to rape the girls on their way home. In the three or four years that I went to that school, two girls were raped on their way home. One was my friend. It was very bad. After that happened, she became very shy. When we would talk about rape in school she became uncomfortable. She felt like she should be alone, like she was a mess-up. It was really sad. She was only twelve years old. That’s why we had people come up that were trained to help refugee girls and why we had girl-only boarding schools. But still, going there was not safe.

Q: I’m so sorry to hear that. Did they change anything to make the travel route safer?

A: Yes, I think they have busses now that take the girls to school, so it is more safe.

Q: Would you like to tell me a little bit about your process of coming into Canada?

A: I came through the World University Services of Canada. I finished school in 2013 and in February 2014 is when I applied for the program. They look at where you are from, why you came to the refugee camp, your grades… things like that. Then you have to do an English proficiency test in Nairobi. They only take twenty-four students and about a hundred and fifty applied. Many girls applied, but they only took five girls. Many people do not get in when they apply, so they have to do the application again and again until they are accepted. Even then, a lot do not get in. I was chosen on my first try, which made me feel very lucky. When my mom found out I’ve been accepted, she was so excited she cried. If I didn’t get the scholarship, I don’t know where I would be now because my parents couldn’t afford the tuition fees.

Q: What surprised you about Canadian culture?

A: People are very polite here. There’s a lot of “please,” “thank you,” and “I’m sorry”. At home, everyone is aggressive and people don’t care. When you’re in a harsh environment, everything is harsh.

The dressing is also different. In summer, I feel like everyone is naked – those small shorts! My mom wouldn’t let me get out with those at home. I wanted to wear shorts here because I am free now and I can do anything. I only tried them once but I didn’t feel that comfortable; I felt like I was naked. Maybe I’ll try them again next summer.

The food here is so different too. When I was on the airplane here they gave me noodles with cheese all over them. It was so bad I wanted to cry; I couldn’t eat it. I also miss real chicken that’s not frozen. At home, you slaughter the chicken and everything yourself so it’s really fresh. I want to go back home and eat real food again!

Q: Did you experience any troubles when you first moved here?

A: I was so shy because of my accent. I think that was the worst experience I’ve ever had.  When I was in class and I would ask a question or answer something they would have to pardon me about three times before they could understand me. I wanted to talk but I felt like people wouldn’t get me. I felt like people would just laugh at me, so I kept quiet. I feel like I’m a lot better now.

Q: That sounds very difficult. What would you say the biggest struggle is for international students?

A: Many of the international students cannot find jobs, so I would say that is the most difficult. We make it up to the interview but once employers see our skin colour or hear our accents, they don’t want to hire us. I had to go work in Fort McMurray over the summer because it was so difficult for me to find a job. Many international students go back to school and get many degrees because they can’t find a job. When you go back to school, you at least have student loans to survive off of.

Q: Thank you Becky for your time and giving us your insight.

A: You’re welcome.