A Cadboro Bay family man who landed as a 17-year-old refugee wants to share a message of optimism as Saanich prepares to welcome refugees from Syria.
Rajesh Chicher left his family in Kandahar to flee Afghanistan as a 14-year-old, risking his life to avoid a mandatory enlistment into the Afghani military. By dodging the military he became an enemy of the state. It took him three years, mostly as a homeless refugee, but he held on to a dream to make it to Canada, arriving in Vancouver with $50 in his pocket while getting by on broken English.
“I just want to remind people here to try to be understanding, try to be in [the refugees’] shoes,” said Chicher, whose first experience with death was seeing a half of a person burning to death. “It’s traumatizing, consider [what they may have been through].
“This is how we can be good citizens.”
This year Chicher’s son turned 14, and as a father, he can’t imagine his son crossing the border, risking his life at this stage.
However, Chicher will never complain about his own history. It wasn’t easy, but he made it through and lives “a privileged life” as a successful real estate agent and homeowner. His wife was born and raised in B.C. and their two children attend Mount Douglas secondary and Arbutus middle schools.
“I’m one of the lucky ones,” he said. “When I got to Vancouver [in 1989], it treated me like a mother … and now I belong to a great community with hundreds of friends.”
As of Nov. 19, 15 Syrian refugee families were set to land in Greater Victoria (dates vary but some by as early as Christmas), all coming through private sponsorship though some also have government assistance.
A group of faculty known as the History Refugee Committee at the University of Victoria is sponsoring a family of five currently stationed in Turkey. They’ve been there two years, said history professor Dr. Elizabeth Vibert.
The group is organizing a live and silent auction gala in the Michele Pujol Room of the Student Union Building at UVic on Dec. 9.
“We can’t divulge too many details about the family as we’ve signed a confidentiality agreement, but we can say they’re in Turkey now and have been waiting for their solution for two years,” Vibert said.
The Syrian family has a friend in Victoria which is key for resettlement. The friend has acted as a liaison, acquiring the visa and other required documents, translating and helping out in other ways, Vibert said.
In addition to the visa process, the biggest task in bringing a family here, said Vibert, is raising the money. The Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria – which links interested parties with refugees – suggests the History Refugee Committee target $52,000 to cover the first year’s expenses.
The History Refugee Committee has already raised half of that and hopes to complete its fundraising soon. It was also just given a matching notification from an anonymous donor who will meet the next $5,000 raised, Vibert said.
For Chicher, the experience of transitioning to Canada was much different from what the Syrians coming to Canada will now experience. When he landed, he approached immigration and they made him an appointment and sent him away, free to roam without a job and little knowledge of Canadian life.
“I was vulnerable.”
Chicher then spent a period of time as a refugee claimant, awaiting word on his status. He couldn’t work without a work permit, and was approached by preying individuals in nice clothes, with nice cars, who offered jobs that “didn’t need a work permit.”
What helped him assimilate here was sports, tennis and being active through cycling.
“You’re exposed to the elements with scavengers going around preying on people like me, ‘Hey, here’s a job’,” Chicher said.
Meanwhile he would stand in line for hours to get a work permit only to find out he couldn’t afford to pay for one.
But a good upbringing and a dream he wouldn’t let go of kept him on the right path, he says.
Chicher’s teenage travels from Kandahar brought him to Canada from Pakistan, India (where he couldn’t stay but briefly met up with his family), Singapore and Korea.
“I had tried to get a Canadian visa in India but they rejected me, the visa officer actually flicked my [Afghani] passport back to me,” Chicher said. “That’s after 25 hours of standing in line, wearing a pair of boots [to pee in] because you can’t leave the line for the washroom. That’s their right to do that, but we need more kindness. Let’s treat the coming Syrians kindly and not assume every single Middle Eastern boy is a potential terrorist.”
Chicher’s Afghan family made it to Germany where he keeps in touch.
“I didn’t cry when I became a citizen, I cried when I bought my first house,” Chicher said. “I was 21 in Vancouver, and that’s when I felt like a citizen.”
The federal Liberal government has backed off its campaign promise to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of the year, pushing that target back two months. The aim now is to have 10,000 of the refugees in Canada by the end of December, with the rest arriving in January and February.
For more on the History Refugee Committee visit historyrefugee.org.
The live and silent auction has appetizers and a cash bar, and boasts about 110 auction items including a Whistler ski package worth $1,500, and a hand-knit Cowichan sweater from Salish Fusion Knitwear.
The event is Wednesday, Dec. 9 from 7 to 9:30 p.m. in the Michele Pujol Room of the Student Union Building at UVic. Tickets: $10 adults, $5 students, children under 15 free.