Refugees in Vancouver: A Vancouver Sun series

Holding a photo album containing pictures of family back in Mogadishu, government-assisted refugee Gaandi Muhamed Sufi sits in his rented room in East Vancouver, decorated with a flag left behind by a former tenant. Sufi arrived in July, leaving behind his wife and five kids. Photograph by: Les Bazso, VANCOUVER SUN

Every once in a while, I’m assigned a story that reminds me why I decided to meander down the career path toward journalism in the first place: I love crafting winding feature stories, acting as a conduit for compelling tales and somehow managing to accurately immortalize a moment in time — with all of its richness and complexities — with a story.

I got that feeling last week reading a draft of my colleague Douglas Todd’s main story for  the Vancouver Sun series on refugees in Vancouver running this week, and again reading one of his accompanying refugee profiles. Those got me excited about my assignment to do one of the profiles, on a Somali refugee named Gaandi Muhamed Sufi, pictured above. (Not surprisingly, he ended up having a great story to tell as well.)

Doug’s intro:

VANCOUVER — For most it is the smell of Sunlight soap.

That is the memory many refugees carry after the first two weeks of their suddenly revived lives in Canada: The odour of the laundry detergent in the yellow plastic container that suffuses their blankets and sheets.

Sunlight soap smells to them of … security.

The 12 plain apartments of downtown Vancouver’s taxpayer-funded Welcome House facility are half a world away from the crowded, unsanitary, hot and ramshackle camps most of these refugees have just left behind.

The majority of the government-assisted refugees who come to Vancouver said goodbye to those camps — where many had spent up to two decades — with just two weeks’ notice. They had heard the long-awaited word that they would be permitted onto a humanitarian flight to Canada.

The walls are bland, the beds and couches basic inside the unassuming Immigrant Services Society of B.C.’s Welcome House. It is the largest, busiest refugee centre in Canada.

But Welcome House is untold luxury to the shell-shocked refugees. There are no bugs, blinding sunlight or screaming neighbours for this latest crop of newcomers from ravaged Iraq, Somalia and most recently Bhutan, which is undergoing a systematic cleansing of ethnic Nepalese.

There is no threat of militia crackdowns, starvation or disease at Welcome House. But there are vivid memories and nightmares. Most of the refugees who find themselves within its walls have witnessed atrocities other Canadians only see on TV newscasts and in movies.

Many have witnessed terrorism in its most immediate sense. Some have watched family members being tortured. Or they’ve been raped by militia men.

Others have been rounded up by the military or had friends “disappear.” Many have been forced into labour camps or known children dragooned as soldiers.

In Vancouver, instead, there is Sunlight laundry soap.

There is also a working sink, toilet and stove, and metal windows that open and close onto the busy downtown street at the corner of Drake and Seymour.

There is money, supplied to new refugees by the Canadian government, to buy fruit, cereal and meat from nearby shops in their first two blessed weeks in the city.

“If only the walls could talk,” says Chris Friesen, director of settlement services at the Immigrant Services Society of BC (ISS of BC), as he leads a tour of Welcome House, where the halls are peppered with wide-eyed newcomers.

These are the kinds of refugees who later tell Friesen they associate the smell of Sunlight detergent, with its cheery sun logo, with safety.

Even though many go on to survive on meagre incomes in Canada, most will never buy another brand of detergent in this country.

Read the rest of Doug’s main story here, and the refugee profiles — of immigrants from Afghanistan, Myanmar, Somalia and Iraq  — here. (Go straight to Gaandi Muhamed Sufi’s profile here.)

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