'These people are just like you': Refugees share their stories of journey to Winnipeg

When Maysoun Darweesh moved to Winnipeg four years ago, she remembers clearly how the tears of joy, relief and happiness froze to her cheeks in the —42 C Winnipeg winter.

Manitoba refugees share their experiences of what is like to flee their homeland and come to Canada

Passages Canada panel on refugee experiences in Manitoba hosted at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. (CBC)

When Maysoun Darweesh moved to Winnipeg four years ago, she remembers clearly how the tears of joy, relief and happiness froze to her cheeks in the —42 C Winnipeg winter.

Darweesh, one of three refugee panelists at a discussion at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights Wednesday, says it is important that people understand that refugees are simply looking for a fresh start.

"These people are just like you. They are human beings. They didn't choose to be refugees. They lost everything because of bad circumstances," she said. ​"Try to remember that they deserve a second chance, and look at me, I got this chance and I'm trying to prove myself and I'm trying help everyone around me." 

The discussion was put on by Passages Canada, a national storytelling program of Historica Canada.

Darweesh and her husband fled Syria 10 years ago and lived in China for five years while waiting to be sponsored and to move to Canada. She now works as a host-matching specialist with the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council's Welcome Place. The program pairs Canadian families with government-sponsored refugee families to establish friendships, which she said helps bring newcomers out of their "isolation bubble" and helps them understand Canadian culture and values.

No typical refugee experience

Hazim Ismail, who came out gay and atheist during his studies at the University of Winnipeg, feared persecution if he was sent back to his home country, Malaysia. Homosexuality is a criminal offence in Malaysia, and his family, who is Muslim, disowned him. He felt it was important to share his story. He hopes people will understand there isn't one typical refugee experience.
Hazim Ismail spoke about his experiences as a refugee from Malaysia. (CBC)

"It would be nice for migrants themselves to feel empowered and maybe also for people who don't identify as being recent newcomers to sort of come out with a better understanding of what refugees have to go through and why it happens."

It took months for Ismail's refugee claim to be processed and was given refugee status in April. Ismail wanted participants to understand the stress that immigration red tape can have on refugees.

"It makes me super anxious, it affects your mental health definitely and it's hard for you to plan anything. Like [you] can't even see one or two years in the future because you're like, "I don't know where I'm going to be, who I'm going to have in my life,'" he said.

Darweesh credits the people who helped her help her get settled in Winnipeg with her success . She said it's why she now works trying to give back and encourages others to become involved. 

"This is the main value to being human. Sometimes we forget that, when you're really in [a] rush in your life, but because of what we faced before," she said, adding that it's an issue that hits home for many refugees. "Try to help people. Try to help human beings in general."