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Refugee policy and my grandmother

2013 January 1

The Christmas season brings out family stories. At Christmas dinner this year, I heard from my Hungarian grandmother the story of her flight from Europe in the 1940’s. Her safe passage to Canada was delayed for years by our government’s categorical rejection of Jewish refugees. I had heard the story before, but this year it struck me with particular force: earlier this month, the Canadian government announced a list of so-called “safe” countries whose refugee claimants will automatically be treated with extreme skepticism. Hungary is on the list. One of the most shameful chapters in Canadian history is repeating itself.

Seventy-five years ago, extreme racist ideology took hold of governments across Europe, which would ultimately lead to some of the greatest atrocities in Western history. My grandmother’s family saw the early warning signs and prepared to leave. Her father, a lawyer, had willing sponsors in his former employers, who had themselves come to Canada at the onset of the war. The family was initially accepted, but they chose to stay just a little while longer, to care for her own grandfather, frail and unable to travel. Unfortunately, they missed their window: Canadian immigration officials soon famously declared of Jews that “none is too many”, and Canada’s borders were effectively closed. When her grandfather did pass away, the family was forced to follow a much more dangerous path, following mere rumours about border guards who might be susceptible to sympathy or bribery. My grandmother, then just nine years old, was lucky to make it to Palestine alive with her sister and parents; others in her family were not so fortunate. They then waited in hopeful limbo for Canada to reverse its decision. This limbo lasted six years.

Jews were the best-known victims of the Holocaust, but there were many other targets: the Roma people (“gypsies”, an outdated and offensive term) were also murdered by the millions. In Hungary today, Roma remain intensely persecuted, while the ascendant neo-Nazi party now controls more than 10% of parliamentary seats. Nevertheless, in its new refugee policy, Canada has declared this situation “safe” in the sense that we will manifest extreme skepticism towards any refugee claimant coming from Hungary or any other so-called “Designated Country of Origin”. Their refugee claim assessments will be accelerated and their right to appeal will be categorically denied. This prejudice is an affront to human decency and to the spirit of international law: the UN Convention on Refugees makes it abundantly clear that refugee claimants must be treated fairly as individuals, regardless of nationality.

Finally accepted by Canada, my grandmother went on to become a nurse, and a celebrated pioneer of breastfeeding promotion in Canada and overseas. She continues to volunteer even now, in her late 70’s. She married a banker, with whom she has four children and eleven grandchildren; all are thriving, and all are devoted to community service. We are parents, class presidents, engineers, educators, artists, entrepreneurs, stockbrokers, publishers, and doctors. Had Canada accepted more Jewish refugees during WWII, many lives might have been saved. If it had maintained its xenophobic position even longer, our family most likely would not exist. I therefore find it profoundly disturbing that Canada, once a welcoming haven to the most vulnerable, has now chosen to renew its suspicion of foreigners. This year, my Christmas wish is for our government to reverse the reprehensible Designated Countries of Origin refugee policy.

(Struck by my grandmother’s story and its close parallel with refugee issues today, I wrote this up as a Letter to the Editor, but the Globe and the Post didn’t publish it.)

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