Canada Reads

Why Eritrean-Canadian Daniel Tseghay says The Boat People hit close to home

In this special series, CBC Books asked a reader with a personal connection to each of the Canada Reads books to share how the books impacted them.
Daniel Tseghay is Eritrean-Canadian and lives in Toronto, Ont. (Daniel Tseghay)

The Boat People is the novel by Sharon Bala. It tells the story of Tamil refugees who arrive in British Columbia aboard a boat. Once on land, the newcomers are faced with various challenges including accusations of terrorism and the threat of deportation.

The novel is currently a finalist on Canada Reads 2018, where it will be defended by talk show host and singer Mozhdah Jamalzadah. In anticipation of the debates, CBC Books asked a reader with a personal connection to each of the books in contention to tell us how the books impacted them.

Daniel Tseghay is an Eritrean-Canadian who saw parallels between the refugees in this story and those fleeing his home country. Below, he reflects on the timeliness of this book.

The Canada Reads debates, which are being hosted by Ali Hassan, take place March 26-29, 2018. 

A people, displaced

A Sri Lankan father and son attempt to make Canada in spite of the country's security concerns regarding refugees in The Boat People. (McClelland & Stewart)

Eritrea, a small northeast African nation with about five million people and my country of origin, is emptying out as we speak. Some reports say that around 5,000 are fleeing every month.

After risking capture, or worse, by border guards, they continue to travel on foot to either Ethiopia or Sudan. Some remain in refugees camps. Others make a home there. But many decide to leave for either Europe or Israel. And they do so at unimaginable risk.

They're packed with others into small pickup trucks by hired smugglers trucks crossing stifling deserts where many die of dehydration or get lost in windstorms. Many of these smugglers just end up extorting these refugees, torturing them until family members abroad can quickly wire them thousands of dollars. If they even reach Libya, they're held indefinitely in detention centres, extorted some more before even getting on rickety or inflatable boats that can either capsize or be turned away by Libyan officials funded by the European Union.

Those who've reached Israel are also held in indefinite detention centres. They're deemed "infiltrators" who represent a fundamental threat to Israel. And, right now, this racist framing is being used to justify the current order to deport all 38,000 of them.

Echoes of The Boat People

This unfolding crisis parallels the story told in The Boat People, a novel by Sharon Bala, about the nearly 500 Sri Lankan refugees who reached the shores of British Columbia on MV Sun Sea, a Thai cargo ship, in 2010 after a dangerous journey across the Pacific. Bala tells the story of characters who, rather than finding sanctuary, are imprisoned and treated like a threat. In one scene, Mahindan, a young father with a six-year-old son, is being questioned endlessly by a lawyer who asks him about the significance of November 27, a day when Sri Lankan Tamil people honour the fighters in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who engaged in armed resistance against the Sri Lankan state and are sometimes deemed terrorists. The lawyer continues to ask why Mahindan did not leave the Tiger-controlled area. Mahindan, of course, had few options. In other parts of the country, repression for Tamils was the norm. But the lawyers used this to imply that, perhaps, Mahindan is a terrorist-sympathizer or, even, a terrorist himself.

Hitting close to home

As an Eritrean, I know these stories personally. Coming from a small country which is nonetheless producing a stunning number of refugees — at a rate some say is higher, proportionally, than even Syria — nearly every Eritrean I know has been touched by this crisis. Its victims are our family members and we know their names and faces.

The Boat People, is a timely story as we're in the midst of a refugee crisis made worse by the criminalization of people who deserve sanctuary more than anyone.

The Canada Reads 2018 contenders:


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