News / Canada

Metro editor remembers her own journey as a refugee settling in Canada 22 years ago

"Welcoming refugees is very generous of Canada, and of Canadians, but I can assure you: refugees are not freeloading. "

Left: Melita, her father, and her brother arrive in Canada, 1993. Right: 22 years later in their new hometown of Oakville, Ont., 2015.

Left: Rick Eglinton/Torstar news service file Right: Liz Brown/Metro

Left: Melita, her father, and her brother arrive in Canada, 1993. Right: 22 years later in their new hometown of Oakville, Ont., 2015.

For years, I’ve treasured this clipped-out newspaper photograph of my family taken just moments after we arrived in Canada. My dad, at the age of 35, only three years older than I am now, has his right arm curled protectively around me and my little brother, nine and five years old at the time.

In the photo he looks like someone anticipating a better life. One he would grant us.

He had just been released from a concentration camp at Manjaca in northwestern Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he was imprisoned for six months. Starved, beaten, kept from his family for nothing more than being Muslim.

Yesterday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government announced details about its ambitious plan to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees over the next three months. Many have criticized the haste — why the rush, they ask. As if any mother and child deserve to spend another night in a tent on a dirt floor.

A softening of the Liberals’ initial promise is disappointing, but at least there’s a commitment to welcome newcomers with urgency. There’s so much desperation in the camps abroad. Perhaps a family’s name is on an immigration list, but it’s a promise that can be yanked away at any moment. In my family’s case, the offer to come to Canada was surreal up until the moment we landed here, when aspirations became concrete.

The question for me, then, isn’t why the rush, but is there good enough reason to make them wait?

We were among 46 government-sponsored refugees who arrived from the former Yugoslavia that day, Jan. 24, 1993, and many more would follow — almost 16,000 over the next four years, who, like us, didn’t have a home to go back to. The breakup of the socialist union led to a fight over Bosnian territory, turning into a bloody war that gained notoriety for “ethnic cleansing” and led to 100,000 deaths, more than a third of them civilians.

We were among the lucky ones, and it’s not something we took for granted.

It’s not a free ride

Muslim refugees ride in a UN convoy as they flee besieged Srebrenica on March 31, 1993.

Getty Images

Muslim refugees ride in a UN convoy as they flee besieged Srebrenica on March 31, 1993.

“Too generous”

These words are used to describe Canada’s refugee policy on the Letters page in The Toronto Star on Nov. 8, 1993. They are echoed by critics this week in the comments section on any story about incoming Syrians.

Welcoming refugees is very generous of Canada, and of Canadians, but I can assure you, refugees are not freeloading. They are not “collecting cheques” and living lavishly. In fact, I recognize now in our first few years here what I failed to see back then — poverty.

We lived in temporary housing, a motel, for about a month in Toronto after arriving. Then we rented a two-bedroom apartment in Mississauga, the size that suited our four-person family for about a decade, until we were finally able to buy a two-storey house in Oakville.

Much of our apartment in those early years was furnished with items placed curbside by neighbours on garbage day. (“Do you have to write that in your article?” my mother asks now.)

I remember her washing other people’s carpets on our balcony, which were afterwards laid out on our floors. 

My brother and I played Nintendo on a wooden-encased TV set that had a Lazy Bones remote — a discarded 1950s relic, I presume.

There was a No Frills at the plaza just around the corner from our building, but if milk happened to be on sale at Knob Hill Farms, an old supermarket chain at the discount mall across town, my parents would bike there to shop. The savings would have been negated by bus fare, so they biked 25 minutes each way to make it worthwhile.

I smile at this story now whenever I stop at Whole Foods because it’s on my way home from work.

Their bicycles were also salvaged from the scrapheap. My dad would come to pick me up at school with his, until I sheepishly asked him if next time he could leave the bike at home? I guess that what my mom finds embarrassing now I was ashamed of back then. We were on assistance for about a year until they both found jobs, my dad as an electrician and my mom as a cashier until she went back to school for her trade in accounting.

Though they soon found work, we couldn’t afford a car until two years later, when my dad bought an ’86 blue Cutlass Ciera. Years later my high school friends and I called it “The Beast.” It was not a cool look, but I loved that car. I learned to drive in that car.

So this is not me complaining; these are not the painful memories, though there are plenty of those from back home: the men in uniforms, pointing a gun at me while demanding money (“Surely you love her the most,” one had contemptuously said); the grandfather and favourite uncle who were killed, and whom I would never see again; the melancholy that takes over whenever I think back to the sharp interruption of an otherwise happy childhood.

In contrast, our family’s struggles in our new home — learning a language, getting a job, trying to fit in at school — were welcome ones. Integration comes quickly, and it did for us.

Like most government-sponsored refugees, we had to refund the cost of our trip to Canada and initial startup expenses, taking on a debt of $3,500 right upon arrival. My dad sees that as fair: “It offered someone else a turn to come here.”

Melita encourages readers to contact her directly at:

Liz Brown/Metro

Former Toronto Star reporter Allan Thompson remembers the story of the photo

OTTAWA – I was on my laptop last Wednesday sharing a column about the prospect of welcoming Syrian refugees in Canada’s small towns when an email message landed out of the blue.

Melita Kuburas, an editor at Metro, was getting in touch to ask about a story I’d written for the Toronto Star more than two decades earlier about another refugee influx. Then, it was hundreds of refugees from war-torn Bosnia, looking to make a new life in Canada.

“You interviewed my father on the day we landed in Canada,” she wrote.

I remembered the assignment in an instant. It was late in the day on Sunday, Jan. 24, 1993, when I took a cab to Pearson airport to meet with refugees from Bosnia who were arriving in Toronto to start over. As The Star’s immigration beat reporter at the time, I’d arranged with officials to get into the customs clearance area to interview some of the new arrivals.

Melita and her brother were just little kids then, cowering beside their dad, Senad, when he recounted through an interpreter the family’s horrific experiences in the Bosnian war. I remember that he was very wary at first, as if hesitant to speak to a journalist at all. But then the gripping, heart-wrenching details of their odyssey began to pour out.

Back in the newsroom later, I explained to the managing editor that Mr. Kuburas’s words were so compelling that my plan was to write a story comprised almost entirely of verbatim quotes, with him recounting at length the family’s story.

Looking back now, it seems that refugee influx happened in a different place and time, only midway through the horrors of the Balkan conflict, a year before the carnage of Rwanda and long before the cataclysm of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington changed so much.

The Canadian instinct to open our arms to refugees from a Muslim community in Bosnia was somehow more second nature then. I don’t recall any chorus about the dangers of admitting migrants who were fleeing a war zone.

And not surprisingly, as is so often the case with refugees seeking a haven, the Kuburas family has done well in Canada. As for Melita, two decades later, she is contributing to our national narrative by linking the story of her family’s arrival in Canada to a new generation of refugees arriving on our shores to make a new life.

Another chapter in the Canadian story.

– Allan Thompson

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