Personal Essay

My small B.C. town helped raise a generation of young refugees

Veteran volunteer Shauna Jimenez on why the world's displaced youth are a great match for rural Canada.

Rural Canada needs young people — and young refugees need Canada

Shauna Jimenez, right, has been resettling refugees for over 30 years. She thinks the world's displaced youth are a great match for rural Canada. (Shauna Jimenez/East Kootenay Friends of Burma)

Rocketing down the slopes, Ta Hay and Anderson seemed fearless.

I tried to slow them down with the yellow rope secured around their waists. We'd tangled ourselves up good a few times, ending up in a mash up of skis, outriggers and prosthetic legs — all roped together.  On our last run, they hit the icy patches fast and slid sideways down the steepest part of the mountain.

This was my first time helping child amputees learn to ski.

The reward for me was their smiles. The reward for them was skiing as fast as they wished, as if they were just like all the other kids that whizzed past us.  

After surviving inexcusable ordeals, the boys — both 10 years old in 2010, both refugees — forged a new friendship on the side of a Kimberley, B.C. ski hill.

Anderson, left, and Ta Hay became refugees as young children. In Canada, a small B.C. community banded together to give the boys a better future. (Shauna Jimenez/East Kootenay Friends of Refugees)

Childhood interrupted

I'd met the boys through my work with the East Kootenay Friends of Refugees, a volunteer organization that resettles refugees from all over the world.

Back in 1983, before Kimberley was host to any displaced families, I returned to Canada after working in refugee camps on the Thai/Cambodian border. I urged anyone who would listen to get involved, appealing to the rural Canadian cornerstone of helping the neighbours — even if they happen to live far away. The response was amazing.

Now, after thirty years of resettlement work, I've seen first-hand how those with rural roots tend to flourish in rural communities.

Over hot chocolate after their tumble on the hill, the boys told me that they'd never heard of skiing before coming to Canada. Their futures had been so uncertain just one year ago.

Ta Hay, who was born with partial limbs, spent his first nine years in a refugee camp on a hillside in Thailand. His family survived on diminishing food rations after fleeing the violence in Myanmar, also known as Burma.

Anderson is a landmine survivor from the hills of rural Columbia. He and his five siblings had relocated to a Bogotá hospital that performed his leg amputation. 

But that crisp winter day, both were focused on skiing. Aim always to avoid the icy patches, they vowed.

Beyond the big city

Ta Hay's family escaped military persecution in Myanmar and spent a decade in a refugee camp. Their profile caught my attention when reading through lists of refugees in need of sponsors.

His family had stated they were frightened of being resettled to "one of those places where the buildings are on top of each other." I guessed that meant highrise apartments.

After thirty years of resettlement work, I've seen firsthand how those with rural roots tend to flourish in rural communities.- Shauna   Jimenez

And if big buildings were scary, I could imagine the challenges they might face trying to navigate a big city by train or bus — all in a new language. Given the family's complicated history of trauma and persecution, I thought the kindness of rural Canadians might be key to their successful resettlement.

I discussed their case with other East Kootenay volunteers, and in 2007 we decided to offer them a new home in rural B.C., just like we had for Anderson's family earlier that year.

Shauna Jimenez, second from the right, says private sponsorship of refugees is a win-win for small towns and the world's displaced — over half of whom are under 18. (Shauna Jimenez/East Kootenay Friends of Burma)

It takes a village

As the boys embarked on many unfamiliar challenges — learning to speak and write English, learning to walk on new prosthetic legs — they were buoyed by small-town support.  

Some volunteers took them canoeing and camping. One generous neighbour gave them piano and swimming lessons. The local judge took them skiing.  

One ski instructor teamed up with a prosthetist to create unique ski legs for Ta Hay, spending hours custom-fitting his stump sockets and getting the best adaptive ski poles to help him survive the slippery slopes. Many such contributions, tumbles and escapades later, the two boys were skiing together.  

Shauna Jimenez says newcomers are a vital thread in many B.C. communities, "creating new friendships, knitting rural communities together." (Shauna Jimenez/East Kootenay Friends of Refugees)

An unsung story

Thanks to the uniquely Canadian Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program, rural resettlement has long been a win-win for small towns and for refugees — even though the challenges can be extremely frustrating.

Policy changes by the past federal government created many hardships for volunteers and refugees, like strict language requirements for Canadian citizenship.

The most vulnerable refugees, often illiterate in their own languages, never had the opportunity to attend school in their countries. Now in Canada, balancing work hours with language classes and family responsibilities, they remain stateless as they struggle toward citizenship.

This means scores of former refugees cannot vote, travel freely or obtain a passport. Their children often miss out on school trips, special events and big opportunities.

(Anderson, for instance, now excels at ski racing, but was once barred from a national skiing competition for youth with disabilities when organizers learned he wasn't a citizen. His parents couldn't pass language benchmark level 4, preventing the family from obtaining citizenship.)

Despite the obstacles, however, many former refugees are thriving in rural communities across Canada.

A world of young refugees

We Canadians are keenly aware of the current refugee crisis fuelled by conflict in Syria. In response, sponsorship groups across Canada have welcomed thousands of Syrian refugees.

But the problem is much more widespread. Syrians are 4.9 million of 21.3 million refugees seeking protection. Both they and the remaining 16.4 million refugees are a vastly young demographic: over half are under the age of 18, according to the UNHCR

Still, we rarely hear about the tragic situations endured by millions of young refugees from countries like Somali, South Sudan, Eritrea, the Democratic Republic of Congo or Myanmar. These refugees languish for decades in appallingly dangerous situations, and I've seen first-hand how the Canadian refugee system can present extra barriers depending on someone's country of origin (the wait time at the Nairobi visa post, responsible for processing applications from many refugee-producing nations in Africa, is up to 68 months).

Rural connection

As we continue to face a global refugee crisis, Canadians have the opportunity to help address a global need while also revitalizing our small towns, putting our talents to use responding to the needs of the world's most vulnerable people.

Youth like Anderson and Ta Hay have found new homes in towns across B.C., including Kimberley, Cranbrook, Rossland, Nelson, Creston, Fernie, and Qualicum Beach.

Private sponsorship combined with our unwavering compassion can lead to more vibrant rural communities. We already see it happening.

As we continue to face a global refugee crisis, Canadians have the opportunity to help address a global need while also revitalizing our small towns...- Shauna Jimenez

Today, volunteers in Kimberley, Cranbrook, Rossland, Nelson, Creston, Fernie, and Qualicum Beach are resettling refugees from Eritrea, Liberia, Myanmar and Syria.

Many of these newcomers stay in small town B.C. for years. Some make it their permanent home.

These newcomers are a vital thread, creating new friendships, knitting rural communities together. The joys of being involved in successful resettlement can be immense — like watching children ski for the first time.

Resilience and compassion combined

Over the years, I've watched Anderson and Ta Hay roll on, inching ever closer to their full potential as athletes. I even catch myself dreaming of them representing Canada at the Paralympics.

The summer after we hit the slopes, I watched them conquer canoeing and kayaking. The next year, they set their hearts on bicycle riding — although, as they joked, with one leg between the two of them, that goal seemed insurmountable.

But then, with the help of an electric bike specialist and Tetra society volunteers, plus funding from The War Amps, we built a custom bike for Ta Hay. Once again, the boys rolled right over another bump in the road.

Ta Hay's bike became a reality thanks to the hard work of the Tetra society's volunteer engineers and technicians, who design devices for people with disabilities.

These two youth, now nearing adulthood, can still be found at the lake, riding bicycles, swimming, canoeing or kayaking before setting to the serious business of roasting dinner on the campfire.

Finally, they tumble into a tent, where they read by flashlight late into the night, improving their reading skills with distant hopes of one day becoming Canadian citizens. 

Pitch your own personal essay to Canada 2017. Do you have a fascinating first-person story about Canada? Is it a point of view that we don't often hear from? Does it present a vision for the future of our country? Read more about how to pitch your essay to Canada 2017. You don't have to be a professional writer — you just need a strong story.

About the Author

Shauna Jimenez

Shauna Jimenez has been voluntarily sponsoring and resettling refugees to rural Canadian communities since 1983. She is a passionate advocate for a fair and just private sponsorship of refugees program and is especially dedicated to protracted refugees with special needs. For more than 30 years, she has encouraged the formation of many active sponsorship groups across B.C. and Alberta.

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