By Dr. Ken Beatty
“The coffee was black and strong in Rio de Janeiro,” my grandfather Peter said, his mind drifting back fifty years to when he and his fellow Norwegians worked on Atlantic whaling ships. I was perhaps seven years old and had little idea where Rio de Janeiro or Brazil were so he opened a large atlas and showed me.
Waving his hand over the book, he said, “Someday all this will be yours.”
I thought he meant the atlas; it took me a few years (and no inherited atlas) to realize he meant the world. And he was right. Born in Canada, I’ve lived 18 years in Asia and the Middle East. In a few weeks, I will go to Poland for the first time, crossing it off as my 45th country. Did my grandfather have some intimation of all this? There was little in his background to suggest so.
After a youth of whaling, Peter Bakstad returned to the cramped farmland of a Norwegian valley but he and his wife Karen decided they needed better opportunities for their three young children. As economic migrants, they took up an offer to move to Canada and farm. In 1928, a train dumped them and a sack of wheat seed in the middle of Saskatchewan. Life was hard; that first year, unable to afford to rent a farm animal, Peter strapped the plow to Karen who pulled it over acres and acres of new fields.
One tough lady.
Tough describes most migrants and refugees–not because they start that way, full of confidence–but because life throws up impossible challenges that they somehow overcome. Or they don’t: an over crowded boat is upended, a mountain pass freezes those fleeing through it, an army hunts and kills those who would escape.
We think of most refugees as being these last ones, those individuals escaping war zones. But there are also refugees who escape climate change; the Global Governance Project refers those who have to move "due to sudden or gradual alterations in the natural environment related to at least one of three impacts of climate change: sea-level rise, extreme weather events, and drought and water scarcity." James Glave, a Canadian environmental activist, says that warmer temperatures are likely to both destroy many of the world’s current farmlands while making Canadian farms more productive. “We should be expanding our ports,” he says. “Over the next hundred years Canada will be feeding the world.”
Other refugees, like the first American pilgrims, flee their homelands for religious reasons. Or they flee from unjust sexual laws, such as parents unwilling to subject their daughters to state-condoned genital mutilation or LGBT individuals escaping oppressive regimes.
Often, between the hell of a homeland and the paradise of a new country, these unintentional travelers land themselves in a refugee camp purgatory. American writer Bill Bryson was invited by Care International to visit Dadaab, a refugee camp in northeastern Kenya, 60 miles from the Somali boarder. At that time, the camp housed 134,000 refugees who had escaped the fighting in Somalia. Writing in his record of the experience, African Diary, Bryson expressed surprise at the poor conditions in the camp. Surely a little money could make a great difference. No, he was told:
It is a fundamental part of aid protocol that you cannot make conditions notably better for refugees than they are for their hosts outside the camps. It wouldn’t be fair and it would breed resentment. Everybody would want to be a refugee. (Bryson, 2002)
A recurring discussion these days, is the fear that among a flock of refugees, a wolf will be hiding. “What if we let in these people and one of them is a terrorist?” It’s a valid concern and while some countries have turned off the tap of human kindness and just said no, others have had creative solutions. Canada, for example, invited 45,000 Syrian refugees this past year, but gave priority to families over single men.
But can a terrorists turn? Can they throw off their violent ideologies and put their energies elsewhere?
Casimir Gzowski was born in 1813 in St. Petersburg to a noble Polish family. He was part of a briefly successful plot to liberate Poland from Russia. It ended badly and Gzowski ended up in an Austrian prison. By chance, he was given a little money and a ticket to New York despite speaking not a word of English. He applied himself and, as soon as he had a few words of English, he began to pay his way through teaching fencing, music, and languages. He studied law before moving to Canada where he reverted to his early army training as an engineer. What did this young terrorist refugee then do?
He helped complete the Welland Canal, he supervised the construction of major roads, bridges, lighthouses, harbors, and railways. He organized the first thoroughbred horse race in North America, Canada's first rifle association, and the Canadian Society of Civil Engineers. He was its first president as well as the first Commissioner of the Niagara Parks Commission. Before he died in 1898, Queen Victoria knighted him.
Not bad for a refugee.
My grandparents and Casimir Gzowski were the lucky ones. They were given the only things that most migrants and refugees ask: Opportunities to work and to make better lives for themselves and others.