Did you know that one in every 113 people globally is now either an asylum-seeker, internally displaced or a refugee? Wars and persecution have driven more people from their homes than ever before, according to the UNHCR 2016 report Global Trends. It is this dire reality that compelled UBC’s Opera Ensemble and the Liu Institute for Global Issues to partner together in the Fall 2016 to host a multi-day symposium, Breaking the Cycle: Canada’s Refugee Record on the Global Stage, alongside a Pulitzer Prize-winning opera and art exhibit titled The Consul in order to share research, nurture efforts and connections, and advance ideas to explore UBC’s and Canada’s response to the global refugee crisis. A team of UBC and ISSofBC staff, UBC faculty, and UBC opera students along with student volunteers supported the planning and staging of the operatic performances at the Old Auditorium and community venues alongside storytelling and knowledge sharing at the Liu Institute for Global Issues.
To find curated tweets and photos, see our Storify story. To watch the panel events, visit our YouTube Channel:
UBC Panel Discussion: Finding Refuge
Panel Discussion: The Fate of Women, Marginalized Refugees and Asylum Seekers
Over the course of two weeks, 21 speakers on four panels engaged attendees on topics such as Refugee Journeys, Refugee Resettlement, UBC Student Engagement and the Benefits of Generosity, The Fate of Women, Marginalized Refugees and Asylum Seekers, and Public Opinion on Migration. Presenters shared research, nurtured efforts and new connections, and advanced ideas, alongside attendees, regarding UBC’s and Canada’s response to the global refugee crisis. Speakers included prominent UBC academics, students, people who came to Canada as refugees, community leaders, settlement providers, and impassioned advocates.
Asha Kaushal, Assistant Professor at Allard School of Law, held an intimate talk at Green College with Kirby Huminuik, Liu Scholar and PhD Candidate in Counselling Psychology, on the global crisis, asking: “Is the global refugee crisis an exceptional situation or the new normal?” Kirby responded that it is “the old normal.” Dr. Kaushal illustrated how Italy and Greece experience burden-sharing issues within the EU in processing people who are fleeing their homes. Kirby explored how the experience of loss – of home, identity, plans, dreams – unites refugees. It’s about finding security of life.
Our opening panel discussion began with a Musqueam welcome from Debra Sparrow and was moderated by Liu Director Moura Quayle. The panel included thought-provoking presentations by Dean of Allard School of Law Catherine Dauvergne, Holocaust survivor Robbie Waisman, refugee advocate Tima Kurdi, and ISSofBC’s Director of Settlement Services and UBC alumnus Chris Friesen. Tima shared her reflections one year after the tragic deaths of her nephews Alan and Ghalib Kurdi in the Mediterranean. Her call to action stirred us to never forget those left behind in the crisis.
“It was very eye opening…having the Holocaust survivor Robbie and the Syrian woman, Tima, who was trying to get her family to Vancouver, speak about their experiences. It was really heartbreaking. Because of it, I’m a lot more interested to look at refugee issues in Canada.” – Student Attendee
Our first panel shone a spotlight on the efforts of the UBC World University Service of Canada Club in bringing refugee students to pursue their education here and supporting them in their transition. The benefits are reciprocal, as the program also enhances the learning experience of the UBC students who sponsor them. Sarah Cameron, International Transition Advisor, shared that UBC has 25-30 sponsored refugees students at a given time. UBC-WUSC student ambassador Kuol Deng Biong told his personal story as a refugee, and left us with an inspiring message: “We as humans have a responsibility, wherever we come from, to help each other and stand for each other.” Katie Rosenberger, Executive Director of AMSSA, charted key issues that refugees resettled in Canada face: mental health problems (especially among children), language, and how larger family sizes often mean challenges in finding suitable housing. Liu Scholar Lisa Brunner argued that Canada’s privately sponsored refugee program shifts the government’s role regarding resettlement onto the public. Finally, Psychology Professor Elizabeth Dunn illustrated how her research points to key ingredients – connection, choice and impact – in turning good deeds, such as privately sponsoring refugees, into experiences of joy.
“It was really amazing to see so many members of the UBC community gathered to learn outside of the classroom.” – Student Volunteer
Allard Law Professor Efrat Arbel began our second panel by arguing that there is an urgent need to redesign the global refugee resettlement system created after WWII otherwise we risk marginalizing people further. Syrian lawyer Fadi Yachoua showed us how legal obligations for countries to act on refugee crisis don’t begin while people are outside their borders. Settlement Orientation Services Director Kerstin Walter shared how asylum seekers are often re-traumatized when they must face a legal hearing while still processing their fear. Jana Husseini, ISSofBC Youth Settlement Worker and disability advocated, illustrated how refugees with disabilities are too often left behind due to barriers and stigma. Finally, Chris Morrissey, long-time volunteer with Rainbow Refugee Committee, presented the harsh realities for LGBTQ refugees and pointed to homophobia and transphobia’s origins in colonialism. Refugees are often forced to flee to a host country with similarly dangerous laws. We enjoyed an engaging question & answer period with our audience before many attendees proceeded to attend a performance of The Consul.
“This was extremely engaging and made me more aware of the current refugee crisis as well as the legal framework surrounding the refugee crisis.” – Student Attendee
Our final panel explored the question: Which stories are being heard and which are being silenced? Dr. Shayna Plaut, Liu Scholar alumna, argued that dominant narratives support dominant power structures which we must regularly critique and dismantle. One way of doing so is to highlight the role of storytellers: Throughout Europe, storytellers are documenting the growing feelings of xenophobia in their own countries, as seen on Strangers at Home, an initiative of the Global Reporting Centre. Following her talk, Professor Rima Wilkes explored how Canadian values of compassion and fairness are a source of great pride, but positive attitudes may not be enough as we often whitewash our history of racism and genocide. We must follow upon our values with good deeds. Finally, we were moved by Zdravko Cimbaljevic sharing his personal story of being the first openly gay man in Montenegro, initiating their first pride parade, facing homophobic violence and institutional homophobia, and fleeing to Canada as a LGBT refugee where he has continued his activism.
“I really hope that this week’s panel discussions on the refugee crisis go beyond discussion and invoke action.” – Noor Youssef, Student Volunteer
Thanks to the expert guidance of UBC Opera Director Nancy Hermiston and the talents of UBC opera students, powerful performances of The Consul were performed on campus, as well as community venues such as ISSofBC Welcome Centre for refugee clients and staff. Kathy Sherrell, Associate Director of Settlement Services at ISSofBC, shared how “the mobile opera highlighted the power of music in making connections across languages, ages, and experiences, forging a shared language of understanding.” The Consul, written by Gian Carlo Menotti, charts the perils of those fleeing persecution. Menotti was moved by events during and after World War II, when many nations would not admit refugees. Chris Friesen, Director of Settlement Services at ISSofBC, expressed that the opera’s “powerful story of war and refugees is as relevant today as it was post WWII.”
Accompanying the opera in the Old Auditorium was an art exhibit courtesy of the Penticton Art Gallery and curator, Mr. Paul Crawford, featuring the 45 works of Judith Foster also titled The Consul. This collection was created in the 1950s after the artist had attended the premiere of Menotti’s opera. She was so taken by the compelling music, plot and the sheer raw emotion of the story that she created the series of paintings. Along with her art work, the Penticton Gallery also lent paintings by Syrian artists titled ‘Behind the Lines‘ composed of works smuggled out of Syria.
“For me as a director, for our students and for all those involved in the opera, symposium and art exhibit it has been an incredible experience to enter the world of those who seek refuge. I ask you to join with us in ‘breaking the cycle’ of the global refugee crisis.” – Professor Nancy Hermiston
Community outreach was an integral part of the symposium’s activities. ISSofBC youth leaders, UBC staff and students took part in leading a group of refugee youth on a campus tour as an opportunity for the youth to broaden their networks, explore campus spaces, and be exposed to the talents of UBC opera students. Thank you to MOA and to Beaty Biodiversity Museum, and UBC Botanical Gardens for complimentary tickets so that the refugee youth can return to campus to enjoy our attractions.
Through music, art, stories, dialogue and discussion, we sought to advance a deeper understanding of the drivers of the refugee crisis and Canada’s role, at both the political and civic levels, in the resettlement of refugees. The symposium illustrated the power of collective action by Canadians, and the UBC community, in responding to those in need.
“Looking forward to continuing the conversation in terms of mobilizing some of the good ideas shared.” – Lisa Brunner, Presenter and UBC PhD Student
Ways to Give Back
For those seeking to support refugees to settle into their new communities locally, the Metro Vancouver Refugee Response Team has a useful website that provides a great list of places and ways to donate or provide assistance in Metro Vancouver.
UBC Refugee Relief is a group of students and staff from UBC fundraising to provide financial support for a family of ten Syrian refugees to settle in Vancouver. They hope to continue their work and sponsor a new group of people, two young women and one young man, all originally from Aleppo in Syria, currently stranded in Turkey, unable to work legally or access enough UN funding for food. UBC Refugee Relief hopes to raise enough money to offer them the stability and safety that they deserve.
MOSAIC’s Refugee Settlement Support Projects connects refugees with private sponsors, welcoming refugees at the airport, providing orientation to private sponsors and privately sponsored refugees, and supporting the settlement of refugees in Metro Vancouver.
A Word of Thanks: The Liu Institute wishes to thank the UBC Opera Ensemble, UBC Community Engagement, Simon K.Y. Lee Global Lounge & Resource Centre, the Peter A. Allard School of Law, Green College, St. John’s College, and Immigrant Services Society of BC (ISSofBC) for partnering with us on our symposium and opera events.