Saskatchewan

Sask. man says critics of immigration 'have no clue what they're talking about'

Ponziano Aluma says growing anti-immigration sentiments are driven by emotion — not fact.

Immigrants' stories show it's not easy to come to Canada

Ponziano Aluma said rampant discrimination against immigrants is fuelled by misinformation and emotion. (Kendall Latimer/CBC)

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Ponziano Aluma's journey to Canada was arduous.

Aluma fled Uganda and spent six years in a refugee camp in South Sudan before coming to Regina in January 1987. He was forced to leave behind family members living and dead.

His wife had died giving birth at the refugee camp. Their child died soon after. Their memories haunted him long after he arrived at his new home.

Aluma's physical journey was only the beginning of the full process of immigration.

He is one of millions of immigrants who have come to the country, according to Statistics Canada, which says more than 17 million people have immigrated here since 1867.

Immigration remains a contentious political issue. Anti-immigration movements are sweeping across the nation.

Aluma said those movements are driven by emotion, not fact.

"The reasons why they are against immigration is not so much that it's being done illegally, it's just because they don't want the kind of people who come now," Aluma said.

He said people seem afraid that the face of Canada is changing as newcomers come from around the globe — not just from Europe. 

"They can't come and say that is the reason why they're opposed to immigration, because that will appear like they are racists."

A confused definition 

Aluma said much of the talk around "illegal immigration" confuses the concept of illegality.

"What seems to be happening is that people are confusing legal migration with asylum seekers," he said. "But when it comes to asylum seekers we know the concept of legality is almost absurd."

Aluma used the example of a woman fleeing an abusive spouse.

"She breaks out of her house, running away from there for safety and then runs to your house and jumps the fence to run and knock at your door for help," he said.

He asked if a person should tell that woman she should have taken the time to ask if she may enter through the gate. He said once asylum seekers "jump the fence" — arriving in Canada by any means necessary — they must still deal with the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.

"If indeed your story is not credible you will be deported," he said. "It is incredibly difficult to actually do illegal immigration."

Family finds refuge in Canada

The Tran family fled the communist regime in their native Vietnam in 1979. They were among 700 people crammed onto a boat designed to hold 300.

"We were very scared," said Victoria Tran, one of 11 Tran siblings who was on that boat.

Tran spoke to CBC via Skype during a visit back to Vietnam. She sat between her siblings Wendy and Bruce, who also took the journey in 1979. They were 10, 13 and 14 at the time.

The family had heard of the dangers of the sea and didn't know how to swim, but they were desperate for a better life.

"All we can do is pray. We pray so hard."

The siblings remember dolphins and whales appearing alongside their vessel as they neared the UN refugee camp on Pulau Tengah, a Malaysian island.

"They are guiding our boat, are floating there, flying in front of my boat and guiding us to the sands," Tran said.

They spent 13 months at the refugee camp before most of them were sponsored to go to Canada. Tran said the sponsorship was "the best thing that ever happened in their lives."

Pictured from left to right are David Tran, Bruce Tran, Dung Tran (Bruce's cousin), Man Tran, Cao Thi Ba, Lang Van Tran, Robert Tran, Victoria Tran, Wendy Tran and Treena Tran. Missing from the photo are brothers Minh Tran and Ngoc Tran who had already been sponsored to go to France. (Submitted by Jane Tran)

They arrived to Canada in 1980. They spoke limited English but were full of gratitude for a "second chance at life."

The Trans spent their first two years in Yorkton. They remember it as small and welcoming but lacking in quality soy sauce.

They made quilts out of clothing donated to them by the churches. It began to feel like home.

They remember running outside to see snow fall for the first time. They put the foreign substance in their mouths.

"We loved it," Victoria said.

They even froze their feet as they walked ten blocks to school in sandals during the first winter — not yet understanding the dangers of frostbite.

Victoria, Wendy and Bruce Tran came to Canada as refugees after fleeing communism in Vietnam. (Submitted by Jane Tran)

The early years in Canada were an exercise in communication and breaking down barriers.

"You come here with no language," Bruce said. "You don't know anything."

Bruce said some kids made fun of them or picked small fights, but the siblings also remember tender moments and funny memories as they learned to navigate the English language.

The siblings say Canada is better for its diversity.

Reflecting on his own journey, Bruce offered advice for people to coming to Canada.

"You don't try to get Canada to change for you. You know you come in and you follow the rules and live peacefully."

Victoria said Canadians should open their hearts to newcomers, not "discriminating them because they have different skin colour."

"People that have been through a lot and then they make it to Canada: It is like heaven."

More challenges for Aluma

When Aluma came from the refugee camp in South Sudan to Canada, his sister stayed behind.

She eventually moved back to Uganda and was deeply affected by her experiences both in the camp and after.

"She was raped two times by soldiers, and each time she got pregnant, and then in 2010 she disappeared," Aluma said.

Both sons born of the assaults were left behind after her disappearance.

Pictured from left to right are Aluma's son Akia, Emmanual on Aluma's shoulder, Aluma, his wife Lydia and Ben. The photo was taken in 2017 when they visited the orphan boys in Entebbe, Uganda. (Submitted by Ponziano Aluma)

Aluma had already sponsored his wife Lydia's immigration to Canada. The pair decided they would adopt his sister's sons.

They've been working since 2013, when the boys were three and five, to bring them here. International adoption is complicated and there were problems with documentation.

The biological fathers were obviously not in the picture and there were no birth or death certificates. Aluma said this made certain aspects reliant on their word. 

"The people in authority assume that perhaps you are not telling them the truth, [that] you are actually lying to them or you're swindling," he said.

"It's incredibly, incredibly very discouraging, very, very upsetting."

There have been immense legal and financial challenges, but he and his wife haven't given up. They hope to have the boys by summer's end.

Aluma's struggles have led him to believe that "nothing that is beautiful and great comes easy."

Challenges with paperwork and emotions

Patrick Fernandez knows how difficult it can be to navigate the bureaucracy that comes with immigration. Love brought the 35-year-old artist to Regina. He came from the Philippines in January 2017 to join his wife, Ernalyn.

"When she asked me to move here I did not have a second thought."

Both he and his wife are now permanent residents, but Fernandez said it was challenging to navigate the immigration system and described it as trying to go through "the hole of a needle." He said the application process took longer than two years. 

Patrick Fernandez stands in his studio in the Philippines. The photo was taken before he moved to Canada. (Submitted by Patrick Fernandez)

He remembers spending long hours scrutinizing his documents to ensure accuracy. The English proficiency test was also challenging.

Fernadez said people don't realize how much newcomers go through to be here.

"We have earned [our permanent residency]."

Fernandez's first six months in Regina were dark. He struggled to remember that Canada was his greener pasture, a stable and secure place, while struggling to rebuild his career and support his family.

He knew coming in he would be sacrificing the reputation he had built as as an artist in the Philippines, but it was still difficult when it happened. He was overcome with loneliness and sadness, unable to find representation as an artist.

Slowly his perspective began to shift.

"This is the place where I am now," he said. "I just have to make the most of it, whether I have a gallery or not."

Fernandez has since found a supportive community in Regina. He's explored the idea of home through his art.

"Home is not the structure itself, but it's a feeling that you belong to that place. It's a feeling that you are wanted," he said.

He and his wife now have a five-month old daughter. They are grateful to live in a safe community with accessible healthcare.

"We've been extremely happy," he said.

The myth of immigrants as burdens on taxpayers

Aluma said many people seem to assume newcomers are "a burden to taxpayers."

"They have no clue what they're talking about, no understanding," Aluma said.

He uses his family as an example. He is an income tax auditor with the federal government. His wife is an entrepreneur and an instructor who works at the Cosmopolitan Learning Center teaching life skills to adults with disabilities. His children, including son Akia, are both making strides as university students.

Aluma is pictured with his wife Lydia and son Akia. (Submitted by Ponziano Aluma)

Aluma has helped support his family back in Uganda since his days at the University of Regina, when he worked as a janitor or dishwasher to make extra income. Today he and wife both continue to support their families: his in Uganda, hers in Vietnam.

"The help I was able to give to my family goes directly (to them) — without any bureaucratic red tape and not a single dime of aid goes to the administration," he said.

He calls it the simplest and most effective form of "foreign aid."

"It's all because of my family ties, my commitments now, and family connections. Now I am supporting these two boys I'm bringing them here," he said.

"If I was not in Canada I would not be able to do those things."

Staying in Regina

Rakan Alghaiber's path is somewhat similar to Aluma's. Alghaiber, 29, is studying for his master's degree at the U of R and has two jobs on campus.

He fled war-torn Syria under false pretences five years ago. Alghaiber was losing family members and friends because of the war.

Some were displaced, some moved to pursue education and others were forced to go and fight.

"I didn't like this, like I couldn't handle it. It's kind of very surreal and sad at the same time," he said, adding he felt helpless. "It's kind of the feeling of like you can't do anything, I guess. It's really harsh."

He didn't want to join the military and was determined to further his education.

Rakan Alghaiber is taking his master's degree in education at the University of Regina and said he feels content in a peaceful, academic environment. (Kendall Latimer/CBC)

He fled in May 2014, right after writing the final exam for his bachelor's degree in English Literature.

"It was risky for me," he said. "What if I failed the exam?"

He didn't know he had passed until two weeks later, after he had crossed the order into Lebanon. He had told the border guards he was only there for a short visit. Alghaiber said it was surreal when his dad brought his degree to Lebanon in a sealed envelope.

"'Oh my God, I made it,'" Alghaiber remembers thinking. 

He spent three years in Lebanon before being sponsored by the World University Service of Canada (WUSC) to come study in Regina.

He said WUSC helped make the transition to Regina easy. It was like a dream come true. He's still struggling with a language barrier when it comes to his studies, but supportive professors are helping the process.

He hopes to use his higher education to help Syrians from afar in the future — but he says Regina is his peaceful home.

"I can't imagine myself away."

About the Author

Kendall Latimer

Journalist

Kendall Latimer began her journalism career in print as a newspaper reporter in Saskatoon and then as a feature writer in Bangkok. She joined CBC Saskatchewan in 2016. Latimer shares stories on web, radio and television. Contact her: kendall.latimer@cbc.ca

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