15 Minutes on Refugee Inclusion and Leadership

Episode Transcript: Part One

Lama Alsafi (00:00): Hello, and welcome to 15 Minutes to Change the World, where in 15 minutes or less, you can learn a bit more about the world and how you can help change it for the better.

Lama Alsafi (00:21): My name is Lama Alsafi, and I’m the host of this podcast. In this episode of 15 Minutes to Change the World we’re marking World Refugee Day by speaking with Masa Kateb and Tsering Norzom Thonsur-two members of the Refugee Advisory Network (RAN), which advocates for meaningful inclusion of refugee leaders in policy and decision-making processes that directly affect the lives of refugees. Masa and Tsering are joining us remotely today from Vancouver and Toronto respectively. Thank you so much for joining us today, Masa and Tsering. Welcome to the podcast.

Tsering Norzom Thonsur (00:54): Thank you very much Lama.

Masa Kateb (00:55): Thank you for having us.

Lama Alsafi (00:55): Thank you. I’m really excited to speak with you. So I’ll just kick things off. Masa, can you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself and your experience as a refugee in Canada? Then Tsering we’ll ask you the same, please.

Masa Kateb (01:07): Thank you so much for having us, appreciation to yourself and CARE Canada. I would like before we start to kick things off with a collective land acknowledgement on behalf of all the twelve advisors of the Canadian Refugee Advisory Network, as we all get to live on unceded and/or traditional territories of Indigenous peoples. We are all guests on this land and we promise to treat them with respect, themselves and their peoples.

Masa Kateb (01:36): My name is Masa Kateb, my preferred pronouns, are she, her and hers. I am a global citizen, if I can start with. I was born and raised in Damascus, Syria and I sought refuge here in Canada in April 2018. And if I were to put under an umbrella term of all the things that I get to do, they’re all to inspire humans, inspire humanity, to be more accepting and appreciative of differences as a core drive towards having more love and compassion between humans and towards all beings and to drive impact towards justice, peace and dignity for all.

I do have experiences in the corporate sector, in managerial and leadership positions, as well as for nonprofits and refugee-led organizations here in Canada, as well as journalism and professional sports back in Syria. With all of that and in terms of my refugee experience, coming with the support of the private sponsorship program, I clearly got to see the systemic barriers that refugees in Canada go through on a daily basis. With the support of the private sponsorship program, I got the chance to have an extra layer of support that allowed me and supported my integration into society here on the west coast in Vancouver, where I now get to sit on many boards and committees and round tables and have a very tangible voice that was missing on the table-not in all times, I’m sure a lot of people are doing great work, though being able to elevate refugee voices as well as the voices of all the different communities that I represent, as I’m not just a refugee, I’m so much more than a refugee. Yes being a refugee I personally believe that it’s a super power. Hopefully throughout this podcast we’ll get to share a little bit more about that.

Lama Alsafi (03:28): Thank you Masa, wonderful introduction. And Tsering, would you please tell our listeners a bit about to yourself and your experiences as a refugee in Canada?

Tsering Norzom Thonsur (03:35): Sure Lama. Well, first of all, thank you very much for having me on your podcast to share my life experiences as a refugee. My name is Tsering Norzom Thonsur and I’m a Tibetan. I was born in India to my parents, Tibetan parents, who escaped Tibet in 1959 when it was occupied and invaded by the Chinese communist party, and since then, I have lived throughout my life as stateless, and also experienced throughout my life lived experience of uprooting and living without an identity. So it shaped my life in such way that I began to work as an activist, as a social worker, as a women’s and human rights defender, and as an activist. I thought coming to Canada as a refugee would help me in amplifying the voice of the refugees and every people who face injustice. And that’s how I came to Canada to live as a refugee. And today I am a proud Tibetan Canadian citizen, but always consider myself as a stateless because many of my Tibetan community who live in India, Nepal and Bhutan are still living as a stateless without any identity. So I definitely feel very privileged with my status here as a Canadian citizen in Canada, because Canada with its welcoming refugee policy, I have been able to cherish my dream to participate as a human and women’s rights defender and try to make a change in their lives. Today I’m working in Parkdale Intercultural Association as manager of a settlement program, and through my work as a profession and as an activist, I try my best to advocate for women’s and refugees rights.

Lama Alsafi (05:34): And Masa I wonder if you can tell us what’s the Refugee Advisory Network and how are you both involved in it?

Masa Kateb (05:41): We’re a group of refugee individuals who come from different experiences in life and from different countries and backgrounds, and we all advocate and try to raise meaningful inclusion and participation for refugees in decision making places. And when we say meaningful, it’s from beginning to end. So it’s the designing, the brainstorming, the implementation, the evaluation and monitoring, but for refugees to actually be included in all layers of anything that really affects the lives of refugees. In my case, when it comes to my involvement, so this is the very first time that this network comes into life, so this is the first cohort.

And I’m a member of the coordination committee, Tsering is as well, alongside Mustafa Alio who’s also one of the advisors. And through that, we get to work on our mandate and governance policy as well as getting to attend different meetings with the Government of Canada. I had gotten the opportunity to be part of the Canadian delegation attending the UNHCR bilateral meetings and meeting with High Commissioner Filippo Grandi from UNHCR. Going forward in terms of involvement, we’re setting the ground and we’re very close to becoming more proactive, as we’re setting our foundation at this moment.

Lama Alsafi (07:15): Thank you, Masa. And Tsering I’ll ask you, what does meaningful refugee participation and leadership mean to you in the context of Canadian refugee policy discussions, decision-making and support? And then if you’ll tell our listeners please, why is it particularly important to hear from folks who identify as women and girls in this participation and discussion?

Tsering Norzom Thonsur (07:37): Well, when we speak about meaningful refugee participation, we mean to say that it is important to include refugees with lived experiences in all discussions and all policy making that is impacting the lives of refugees globally. So when we talk about the Global Refugee Forum, which was held in 2019 in Geneva, it talked about improving the lives of refugees globally, and it also encouraged leaders, government leaders to include refugees in their government delegations, where they are going to discuss policy and decision-making on improving the lives of refugees. So this is what is meaningful refugee participation.

And we encourage the Canadian government, as well as global governments, to include refugees in a meaningful way where refugees are not merely token representation, but participating as a refugee and making impact on the policy making and the decision making. And so that is why we always encourage meaningful refugee participation at all levels of policy, making, decision making and participation in meetings.

And for me, with my lived experience as a Tibetan woman and refugee throughout my life, I’ve participated in many of those international meetings at the United Nations level, at a national and international level, and I understood that only if you participate in those meetings, you will try to make an impact on the platform for action that is always discussed at these meetings. So when you participate, when you try to lobby the government leaders, lobby the policy makers and the activists, you can encourage them to include your voice, whether be it as a woman or a refugee or a human rights defender. So when we are able to participate, then we are able to make an impact on the decision making and the policy making.

Lama Alsafi (09:45): Masa, what do you think? How does refugee participation make a difference in the global refugee response?

Masa Kateb (09:55): Thank you so much Tsering for all of what you’ve said, and if I can add. In life overall, we seek experience. So like if you have a position or if you have something that you want to consult someone on, you would consult someone who’s got experience in that thing. Unfortunately, when it comes to the global refugee system, that is not the case. So imagine a women’s conference about women’s rights and there are less than 1% women attending the conference. It’s not even a legitimate conference in the first place. In this day and age, this is how it’s like for refugees. So even when it comes to global discussion, there are currently like, even when the last Global Refugee Forum, from 3000 delegations, 70 of them were refugees. So that’s less than 3%. This is something that is considered a success for some, yet for others it is still seen as a process that has so much room of growth.

Being able to take the experiences of refugees with all of, and refugees are so beautifully diverse. So yes, they all have the umbrella of being refugees, but then each one of them have their own life experiences, work, experiences, different cultures, they bring, we bring so much to the table. So imagine being able to get all of that collective into one place and say, okay, we’re going to brainstorm and we’re going to try to enhance the system that is not built to support this many refugees. It’s a system that is currently failing refugees, unfortunately, and that’s okay. Admitting it is the first step, and a lot of people globally, locally and nationally have gotten to that stage and right now with that energy we’ll be able to say, okay, let’s bring those experiences on to the table and be able to weave them into a powerful impact.

Lama Alsafi (11:50): What do you wish Canadian policy makers knew about refugees?

Masa Kateb (11:57): They’re importance on such tables! When you weave a policy for anything, ideally you would go on the ground, you would do some surveys. You would try to feel like is this policy serving this population that I want to have the policy to support, when it comes to any policy maker, about anything. So refugees are part of society. So it’s not just policies that specifically relate to refugees or have the wording of a refugee somewhere in it or even in Canada there’s also a lot of people saying newcomers, or you know, refugees fall under newcomers. And technically it’s a different journey for an immigrant than from a refugee. And with that in place for decision for policy makers, being able to include refugees in discussions about making those policies, implementing them, evaluating them would definitely make those policies be more effective and efficient. I think a very good question to ask ourselves is why are we doing what we’re doing? If I’m just putting a policy in place just to put a policy in place and then I say, yeah, I’ll look at it five years from now, then it’s not so beneficial to the collective and the world. You know, time is very precious.

Lama Alsafi (13:20): Alright, thank you to both. This inspiring discussion is not over. As part of our special World Refugee Day edition of 15 Minutes to Change the World, please join us for part two of our discussion with Masa and Tsering, which you can find on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and on care.ca/podcast.

Episode Transcript: Part Two

Lama Alsafi (00:00): Hello, and welcome to 15 Minutes to Change the World, where in 15 minutes or less, you can learn a bit more about the world and how you can help change it for the better.

Lama Alsafi (00:07): My name is Lama Alsafi and I’m the host of this podcast. Welcome back to 15 Minutes to Change the World and thank you for joining us for part two of our episode on refugee inclusion and leadership with Masa Kateb and Tsering Norzom Thonsur-two members of the Refugee Advisory Network (RAN), which advocates for meaningful inclusion of refugee leaders in policy and decision-making processes that directly affect the lives of refugees. Thank you so much for joining us today, Masa and Tsering welcome to the podcast.

Tsering Norzom Thonsur  (00:50): Thank you very much Lama.

Masa Kateb (00:51): Thanks for having us.

Lama Alsafi (00:52): What do you wish Canadian policy makers knew about refugees?

Tsering Norzom Thonsur  (00:56): It is important for our Canadians to know that the refugees who are here in Canada are not a burden on the society. We would like to be treated with dignity and respect, and we are here, the refugees who are in Canada here have contributed to the economic, the political and social fabric of the society and the country. You know, we are all educated professionals with rich lived experiences and we play an important role in the development of the country and the society through our daily profession and dedication to the improvement of refugee life. Like when we talk about RAN, we have twelve educated professionals who come with rich experience and backgrounds. And so there are refugees who are highly educated, who are very, you know, efficient in making a difference in improving the Canadian society. And so I would like to, you know, appeal and request our Canadian friends to know that the refugees are not a burden on the society and that they are a very potential contributing members of the Canadian society.

Masa Kateb (02:11): Thank you Tsering, and if I can add one thing. Just to be very clear, Canada, compared to the rest of the world, is a leader when it comes to inclusion of refugees, to facilitating spaces, to empower and support the voices of refugees to be more active compared, and if you want to look at other countries, whether resettlement countries or host space where refugees, they don’t even want to say that I’m a refugee. They want to hide that they are refugees. When I came to Canada from that global context, I wanted to hide that I’m a refugee. I didn’t want to tell anyone that I was a refugee. But then I came here and I saw that it was different, and I love this about Canada. It is different. There is room to experience and explore, freedom of speech, freedom of expression. You embrace your holistic self and be able to see that yes, I am a refugee and that’s a pretty awesome thing. I went through so much in life. I went through so many challenges, on a daily, on a momentarily basis, I was on survival mode, I lived war. And not just to say all refugees come because of war, there are so many reasons for people to seek refuge, please never assume, always ask or research, but then you get to see that there’s so much life wisdom in a refugee. We can contribute so much to the collective of the universe, of the world. How can we have people who are not refugees see that? So yeah, I just wanted to leave that food for thought.

Lama Alsafi (03:39): Yeah that’s an excellent point and it’s such a wonderful message to new refugees, refugees who may have recently arrived in Canada, that refugee issues are thought about here and the way that Canadians are making an effort and learning as we go to welcome refugees as new friends and new neighbours and new colleagues. I think we’re all learning and growing together in this area and that’s why it’s so valuable to have your voice and your messages here, especially in this, in this context. Tsering, I wonder if you might be so kind as to give a message to refugees who might have recently arrived in Canada, and maybe to those Canadians who I mentioned, who might be welcoming them as neighbours and friends and coworkers.

Tsering Norzom Thonsur  (04:25): Thank you Lama. I think, you know, it’s very important for the new refugees who arrive in Canada to understand that there is help and there is support. The Government of Canada, both at the federal and the provincial level, have funded many settlement service providers to help refugees, newcomers, immigrants with the settlement process in Canada. And just to let you know, for example, I work with a settlement service agency called Parkdale Intercultural Association in Toronto, and we help many newcomers and refugees with their settlement adaptation and integration in Canada. So all new refugees who are here in Canada should, when they need help, approach those settlements service agencies in your local area. Go to the library, ask them for settlement support and settlement services and they will direct you to those places where you can be helped with your documentation, with your refugee process, with your asylum seeking, and with employment or health care. And for Canadians, also to know that, you know, Canadian refugees who are here in Canada next door as a neighbour or in the community, if you can show an extra support to the refugees during the most difficult period in their life, you know, when they are here as a newcomer and especially as a refugee, they need a lot of emotional and social support. So when you see them, you know, welcome them, have a discussion on their situation and see how you can support. You can help them by, you know, talking to your local politicians, asking your Member of Parliament or Member of Provincial Parliament, and city counsellors to see if there are enough refugee support in their policies, and to see if there are extra, you know, professional support and employment programs that can support the refugees in getting employed, and then establish their life here as a new refugee in Canada and make it easy for them.

Lama Alsafi (06:45): Well finally, Masa and Tsering is there any message or final thoughts that you’d like to leave our listeners with?

Masa Kateb (06:51): Thank you for that Lama. On the point of new refugees coming to Canada, I want to invite them to embrace a mind shift, knowing that yes, we have been on survival mode before we came here coming to Canada, and until we figure things out, stand up on our feet and integrate into society, we are technically also one way or another within survival mode. But having that mind shift of being able to think ahead and say yes, I want to plan five years from now and having that room in the mind is definitely very empowering. So I invite refugees in Canada to explore that.

And when it comes to Canadians, a very concrete call to action is to support the economic inclusion of refugees. Whether you speak with your HR professional in where you work and say, okay like do we have refugees who work with us? Can we have refugees come work with us? You know within policies or within diversity and inclusion departments, there is a mention of, for example, some corporations or entities may say we have a specific rule about having newcomers work with us, but then there is a difference between newcomers and refugees. Refugees are way more vulnerable. And we didn’t even speak about like refugee women or like minorities within the LGBTQ+ community or folks with disabilities. So you have so many layers within that, and being able to be as inclusive and supportive for that integration. So for refugees to empower their potential or to embody their potential is definitely something that would be appreciated.

And when it comes to policy makers at some point, I missed to mention, in Canada there’s a difference, within refugees there are systemic barriers. So a private sponsored refugee is different from a government sponsored refugee, is different from a refugee claimant. Refugee claimants needs a lot of support. There isn’t enough support for refugee claimants and I highly ask and recommend people to focus in Canada if you want to have a better work in Canada, is to support refugee claimants.

And overall, never assume, always ask. We have easy access to internet, we can always read. And speak from the heart. We’re all humans. There is a lot of room for more compassion and love while there are a lot of root causes of refuge that are taking place around the world. Every two seconds, a person is displaced. Every two seconds a person is displaced. Like right now three people were displaced as we’re talking. So how can we contribute to the collective consciousness and inspire the world to be a better place? Appreciation to CARE Canada for all the work that you do and thank you for having me and for having us today.

Lama Alsafi (09:45): Thank you so much, Masa. Thank you for those thoughts. Tsering, please, I’ll give you an opportunity if there’s anything you’d like, any final thoughts to leave our listeners with?

Tsering Norzom Thonsur  (09:54): You know, I would like to echo what Masa said, and I would like to add as well that according to the UNHCR reports, you know, 79.5 million in the world are forced to flee home and they are displaced. And 26 million refugees and half of them are under the age of 18. According to the UNHCR, there is more than 10 million stateless, and a child is born stateless every 10 minutes. So adding upon what Masa said, it is important that refugee leaders are supported, encouraged; refugee-led organizations are funded and supported so that they can advocate for refugee rights and refugee leadership so that society and the Canadian government as well can benefit from the participation, the meaningful participation, of refugees.

And I would like to acknowledge and thank the Government of Canada for being so welcoming and helping the refugees in Canada. Canada was the first country in 2019 when there was the Global Refugee Forum, Canada was the first country to take and include a refugee in their Canadian delegation. We have Mustafa Alio who is a refugee advisor amongst the Refugee Advisory Network, who was the first Canadian refugee delegation to participate in the Global Refugee Forum in 2019. And so that was a big achievement, not only for Canada, but for all refugees globally. And so we’re asking all the government leaders globally to follow Canada’s suit and encourage participation, meaningful participation, of refugees in their delegation.

And finally, I will conclude by thanking all the listeners for listening to our experiences and I thank CARE foundation for giving us this opportunity in marking the World Refugee Day. It is an important day, not just symbolic, but it is definitely an important day to remind people across the country, across the world, that the refugees are still lying in different camps, refugee camps, around the world, and they need our help. We need to increase more refugee leaders so that they can amplify the voice of those refugees who are in dire situations, and I thank you so much for this opportunity again, and to our listeners for listening to our story, or our experiences.

Masa Kateb (12:31): Dear listeners, now you know the information, what are you going to do next? You’re going to finish this podcast, how is your life going to change? How is this information going to impact your future actions? Please consider contributing positively to the fabric of the universe, including for refugee rights.

Lama Alsafi (12:48): Thank you so much Masa and Tsering for this wonderful conversation. Thank you also for your advocacy, your dedication, your leadership. I know that you’ve inspired me and I’m confident that you’ve inspired many of our listeners who have tuned in today. Thank you as well to all of you who are listening now. As always, you can find every episode of 15 minutes to change the world on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and by visiting care.ca/podcast.