British Columbia

Refugees saved by Canada decades ago say compassion is missing today

The image of a dead boy washed up on a Turkish beach has two former refugees wondering what happened to the Canada that saved them 43 years ago.

Jalal and Shamshad Jaffer fled Uganda in 1972, when a hasty Canadian operation got 6,000 people to safety

Left to right: Jalal Jaffer, Shamshad Jaffer, Vera Ryan and Michael Ryan during the Jaffers' first Christmas in Toronto. The Ryans hosted the Jaffers when they came to Canada. (Submitted by Shamshad Jaffer)

The image of a dead boy washed up on a Turkish beach has one B.C. couple, once refugees themselves, wondering what happened to the Canada that saved them 43 years ago.

Shamshad Jaffer and her husband Jalal were newlyweds when they fled Uganda in 1972, after then-president Idi Amin gave anyone of Asian descent 90 days to leave the country.

"You heard stories of people being thrown to the crocodiles, politicians being murdered … it was really traumatic," Jaffer said of their lives at the time. "There was one focus: how do we get out of here?"

Jaffer said the fear and uncertainty she and Jalal were feeling started to diminish once they were contacted by Canadian diplomatic officials.

"When the team arrived from Canada, there was a realization: this is for real. And somebody's going to look out for us."

That team was given orders from the highest levels of government to get as many Ugandans of Asian descent out of the country as possible. Jalal Jaffer remembers they didn't let paperwork get in the way of that mission.

Almost 6,000 saved

Mike Molloy, a 26-year-old visa officer from Nelson, B.C., was part of that team.

He was stationed in Beirut when Amin's 90-day declaration was made, and was given orders to go to Uganda and make contacts with the heads of various Asian communities.

That's when he met Jalal Jaffer — "who thrashed me in a game of squash," he recalls — and began the work of establishing an official Canadian presence in a country which had none.

Jalal and Shamshad Jaffer say they don't recognize the Canada that came to their rescue in 1972. (CBC)

In an interview with On The Coast guest host Gloria Macarenko, Molloy said the day after the Canadian visa office opened, people were lined up for three blocks outside the office door, desperate to get out of the country.

"I think we passed out 3,000 applications that day. It was really an amazing thing," Molloy said.

Jalal Jaffer said the Canadian diplomats were a stark contrast to the British officials, who were more process-driven and detached.

Instead, he says, the Canadian team were more compassionate, and were willing to make the process work for them.

In the end, the Jaffers were two of the almost 6,000 people who got out of Uganda within months thanks to Canadian visas.

Kampala to London to B.C.

The couple went to London first, where they had lived previously as students and knew the lay of the land.

But they wanted to start a family, and London was claustrophobic. They still had their Canadian visas, and the country was beginning to intrigue them.

"I was in Trafalgar Square, at Canada House, and I started reading newspapers, The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, and I started to get such a vibrant sense of Canada," said Jalal Jaffer.

"I was initially thinking about how Canadians lived in the North Pole, in igloos. That was my impression...But to see an exceptionally thriving, exciting country, we then couldn't wait to get to Canada."

Jalal and Shamshad Jaffer built lives for themselves in B.C.: he became a lawyer, and she became a realtor and then a stay-at-home mom.

'Rhetoric of numbers'

But 43 years later, as the refugee crisis in the Middle East continues to boil over, the Jaffers say they don't recognize the Canada that saved them from persecution.

Shamshad Jaffer feels there is a lack of leadership coming from senior government, which is troubling after so many waves of refugees have come to Canada in the past.

"I find the rhetoric to be of numbers, without compassion, without the humanitarian realization that there's something happening out there," she said.

Molloy agrees that Canada can be doing more.

"I think we can easily take in another 25,000 people," he said. "We have the best settlement agencies in the world. We have people who are willing to sponsor. But the government has to lead and the processes have to be simplified."


To hear the full interview, click the audio labelled: Refugees who fled to Canada in '72 say more can be done today

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