British Columbia

Refugee forum in Vancouver aims to highlight contributions

When Patience Magagula came to Canada as a refugee in 2007, she endured isolation, culture shock and the remnants of past traumas. She will be one of several refugees sharing their experiences of coming to Canada at a free forum on Saturday.

Event will highlight the experiences of leaders in Metro Vancouver's refugee community

The Unique Lived Experiences of Refugees in Metro Vancouver is a free forum taking place in Vancouver on Saturday. ( UBC School of Public Policy and Global Affairs)

When Patience Magagula came to Canada as a refugee in 2007, she experienced social isolation, culture shock and the remnants of past traumas. 

Magagula had been living in South Africa for seven years. She had fled there from Zimbabwe, where she faced political persecution in the ongoing conflict between the ruling Shona tribe and hers, the Ndebele. 

She prefers not to describe details of what she endured because she still fears retribution today, but she says it left scars on her body.  

"I used to have flashbacks a lot, but I'm recovering day by day," she said. "It's hard, especially when I think of all those people who died."

Magagula will be one of several refugees who will be sharing their experiences of coming to Canada at a free forum on Saturday, The Unique Lived Experiences of Refugees in Metro Vancouver.

The event is co-hosted by several groups, including the University of British Columbia and MOSAIC, an organization that supports refugees, temporary workers and new immigrants. 

Saleem Spindari, MOSAIC's manager of refugees and migrant workers, says the goal of the event is to highlight the experiences of refugees and their contributions in order to dispel misinformation.

"We want to acknowledge that the community in general is very supportive of refugees," Spindari said. "But at the same time we shouldn't underestimate the racist remarks that have been used against refugees."

Saleem Spindari says refugees bring unique skills and experience to their new communities. (MOSAIC)

Making a difference

The event will explore the unique challenges of refugees with disabilities or who identify as LGBTQ. But Spindari says it's also important to highlight how those refugees have made a positive difference.

For Magagula, that includes founding and directing the Afro-Canadian Positive Network of B.C., and her work on the board of directors and committees of organizations like the Pacific AIDS Network and Canadian Treatment Action Council.

Patience Magagula came to Canada as a refugee in 2007, shortly after she was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. (Afro-Canadian Positive Network of B.C.)

Magagula was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS shortly before she came to Canada. The news was devastating, and added to her trauma.

When her doctor told it's a crime in Canada to not disclose one's HIV/AIDS status to sexual partners, Magagula interpreted that to mean the disease itself is illegal here. 

She kept her status to herself, a shameful secret. And she didn't have any friends or family nearby to talk to, adding to her sense of social isolation. 

"I realized I wanted to be an advocate, to advocate for myself and also advocate for my community," she said. 

Encouraging dialogue

Today, Magagula and her organization help to connect people in the Afro-Canadian community who are living with HIV/AIDS.

They share their experiences and try to reduce stigma associated with the disease in order to encourage people to seek treatment. 

Spindari says the leadership of refugees like Magagula helps to strengthen the communities they live in. 

"We're hoping this event will encourage dialogue and … put our differences aside," he said.

Other speakers at the event will include Zdravko Cimbaljevic, who came out as the first out gay man in Montenegro, and Jana Husseini, a Lebanese woman with spina bifida who promotes the rights of persons with disabilities around the world. 

About the Author

Maryse Zeidler

@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.