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Displacement is part of the human condition. Over the centuries, people have moved to avoid floods, wars and famine. In its annual report on global trends, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, UNHCR, estimated there were 42 million "forcibly displaced people" worldwide at the end of 2008. Of those, 15.2 million were refugees in asylum countries, 10.5 million of them under the care of UNHCR. More than half of those under UNHCR care had been living in exile for more than five years with no solution in sight in what humanitarians call "protracted refugee situations."
Forty-two million. It's not a number easy to imagine. Forty-two million. It is not a number that suggests that solutions are around the corner. Forty-two million. It is a number hard to connect to individuals with sorrows, regrets, fears and despair, or with lives of marriages, births, songs and poetry.
Displacement is also a big part of the Canadian story. We are a nation of people who, for the most part, have come from somewhere else and, usually, because we had to. There were the Irish who faced "death or Canada" after the potato famine of the 1840s; the Doukhobors and the Jews who escaped pogroms in czarist Russia; the Ukrainians who settled in the prairies before the First World War; the Hungarians and Czechoslovakians who ran from Soviet oppression in the '50s and '60s; the "boat people" fleeing from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in the late '70s.
The blemishes in our record of accepting displaced people are part of our country's shame. There's the Komagatu Maru incident of 1914, when authorities in Vancouver would not allow steamboat passengers from India to disembark on Canadian soil, and the horror of the MS St. Louis in 1939, when Canada refused to accept nine hundred Jews escaping Nazi Germany. Those who did make it to Canadian shores often faced racism in extreme forms such as the "head tax" for Chinese immigrants, or the gnawing bigotry and discrimination faced by the Irish, by Italians and by the "DPs" of Eastern Europe after the Second World War to name a few. Yet despite the Canadian ambivalence to immigrants and refugees, they kept coming and we kept—and keep—accepting them. By 2006, one in five Canadians was born somewhere else.
About a quarter of a million newcomers came to Canada in 2008 alone. Among them were eleven students who had been isolated without freedoms in remote camps in the poorest region of Kenya, refugees living in one of the worst "protracted situations" in the world. Their adjustment to life here may seem like an extreme example of the disorientation all newcomers experience, but it is a chapter in that important Canadian story.
From the Hardcover edition.