Seeking Asylum: The Agenda

Dance Steps for young immigrants

Dance imitates life in class aimed at helping migrant youth cope with challenges

Weekly program helps at-risk young immigrants, many living here alone and undocumented, find solace and confidence.

The dance hall looks nothing like a professional studio — there are no hardwood sprung floors or wall-to-wall mirrors.

But nothing can dampen the enthusiasm and determination of these youthful dancers — many of whom have come to Canada on their own, without documents — to express their inner feelings and explore their passion for any dance form, from hip hop to salsa, dancehall, traditional African, jazz and break-dance.

With Tinashe’s catchy All Hands On Deck blasting from a boombox this weeknight, the 15 young men and women gyrate their elastic bodies to the tune, carefully following guest instructor Irvin Washington’s every cue.

“Cut, push! Cut, push!” shouts Washington, a professional dancer and choreographer, tapping his toes on the plastic flooring. “You have to do it over the top. Do it! I love big moves. It is okay to feel crazy. You need to build up toward these explosions.”

For the teenage dancers in the weekly Dance Steps program, the community rec room — with plastic flooring and its furniture pushed back to the edges of the walls — is a place to find solace and sanity amid the craziness swirling around their young lives as immigrants.

“You come here and check your worries and fears at the door,” said Francois Dushimiyimana, 20, who left his family behind in Rwanda when he sought asylum here in December 2013, via the United States.

“We all go through our journey alone, and no one seems to understand. Here we meet other people in the same boat and share our stories. We have great support because we’ve been through the same, and we don’t judge one another.”

Offered weekly at the Davenport-Perth Neighbourhood and Community Health Centre and St. Stephen’s Community House, the program was initiated by the FCJ Refugee Centre last fall to help some three dozen at-risk newcomer youth learn life skills through dance classes that would otherwise be out of their reach financially.

“These youth face all kinds of barriers. Some of them can’t go to school or work, and can’t advance in life. We want them to emerge and take leadership. Dance is just a vehicle,” said program co-ordinator Diana DaSilva, herself a former professional dancer and teacher.

“We run our routines and put our choreography together and perfect it. They have to be very disciplined, learn to communicate, work as a team, resolve any conflict and listen to each other. And we want them to be empowered in the process and take these skills with them outside the classroom.”

Ane’ssa Hanson, 18, was sent by her mother to Canada from Jamaica on Christmas Eve 2011, to stay with her aunt and cousins “for a better life.” Now living on her own and attending Grade 12, Hanson is an avid dancer who would like to pursue traditional African dance and dancehall as a career.

“This is the one place that I can be myself, because everyone is a friend. We can all have fun and joke around, doing all these crazy, wild moves,” said Hanson, who does housekeeping to support herself and has applied for permanent residency in Canada on humanitarian grounds.

“You got teased for your Caribbean accent in school and have a hard time fitting in. Definitely, financially it is always a challenge. Did I make the right choice to come to Canada? Yes, when I’m here (dancing). No, whenever I feel homesick.”

Washington, the guest instructor, said he was impressed by the excitement and enthusiasm shown by the youth.

“It is good to see them fight for it. It’s not like these aspiring dancers are going to be on TV dancing with Beyonce, but dance can change lives. These young people have to fight and fight and fight in their lives. This will give them the confidence they need to push through it.”

That rings true to Dushimiyimana, who had been told he looked ridiculous when he danced and has to practise his new moves in a tiny bathroom, the only place at home with a mirror.

“We have performed at a few public events. It’s nerve-wracking, but it felt great to be dancing in front of so many people, clapping and smiling at you, having a good time,” said Dushimiyimana. “It is self-empowering.”

Dance Steps will perform at a Black History Month celebration at the Davenport-Perth community centre on Feb. 26

dance program



Mohsen: A teenager on the run, dreaming of Canada

Mohsen lives illegally in a factory with dozens of other male teens. All the boys have fled Afghanistan. They are on their own, trying to illegally cross through Europe to get to Germany, Sweden or France, countries where they believe they’ll find a better life.

There is no electricity in this hollowed-out factory. No plumbing, no comfortable couch and no Xbox. In fact, there are few intact walls or rooms, let alone a kitchen or a refrigerator full of groceries. Empty takeout containers, plastic bags and other garbage litter the concrete floors. Laundry, freshly washed using water from the hose, hangs on pegs to dry.

The factory is across the street from Greece’s second-biggest port. From here, the boys can sit on the roof and watch the activity, the movement of the guards and, most important, the times the ferries load in order to cross the Gulf of Patras to Italy. Some of them dream of stowing away.

Photojournalist Giorgos Moutafis and I found the factory courtesy of some older Afghan men who live in another abandoned building in Patras. They knew we were reporting on the plight of unaccompanied child migrants fleeing conflict and poverty, so they took us to visit the boys.

It was hard to miss Mohsen taking a shower. I asked him if the water was cold. “Very cold, miss!” he yelled out.

One of the remarkable things you notice about these homeless kids is how clean they are. It was more than 100C in the late August sun, yet all of them had well-kept, short hair, all were clean shaven and none of their clothes were dirty.

Another Afghan who lives in Patras, Zahidi Mohamed, 29, comes by the factory almost daily to check on the boys. He helps them keep up appearances by cutting their hair.

Mohsen, a Hazara Afghan, told me that he left Kabul when he was just 13 at the urging of his family. The Hazara are among the most persecuted ethnic groups in Afghanistan.

He desperately misses his parents. Especially his mother, who he said was very ill. He had not spoken to her in months.

“I can’t, I don’t have any money and there is no work in Greece,” he said.

“I left to find a better life,” he said, the irony not lost on him.

He told me he missed everything about home, especially his mother’s cooking.

At the end of our talk, I gave Mohsen 20 euros and told him to call his mom from a local internet café. We also exchanged Facebook information. He promised to stay in touch as he made his way through Europe.

When I left the factory, I never expected to hear from him again. But I did. Just days later, when I was in Thessaloniki, he sent me a Facebook message that said, “Hi miss.”

Then the messages started coming over a period of days and weeks. “I’m very sick,” said one. “Can you help me?” asked another. “I need help, you know.” And then: “It is very hard to live like this,” and, “I want to come to Toronto.”

His request fell on me like a dead weight. I wanted to help him but thought the possibilities would be slim. He was in Greece and registered with Greek authorities as a migrant.

According to European Union law, the first nation in which a refugee lands is the country responsible for their paperwork and asylum. For Mohsen, that is Greece.

I begged Mohsen to check in with Praksis, a youth shelter and drop-in centre in Patras. Besides hot meals and a change of clothes, Praksis also has doctors on staff, psychologists, social workers and lawyers.

Unsure of what else I could do, I talked to Debra Black, one of the Star’s immigration reporters, who put me in contact with Francisco Rico-Martinez, the co-director of the FCJ Refugee Centre in Toronto.

The economist and lawyer was born in El Salvador, but came to Canada as a refugee in 1990 with Loly, his wife, and their two children. He now devotes his life to helping newcomers to Canada.

Read more:

Tours help refugee claimants navigate asylum hearings

On a recent Thursday, 11 asylum seekers streamed into Hearing Room 9 on the fourth floor of the Immigration and Refugee Board’s Toronto headquarters on Victoria St. But not to have their cases heard.
Instead, pen and notepaper ready, the claimants from nine countries paid careful attention to “tour guide” Dan Crawford, as he offered tips that could mean a lot to the success of their asylum claims.
Crawford, an analyst with the refugee board, has presented more than 10 such READY orientation tours for GTA refugee claimants since May, an effort to help them navigate the asylum hearing process and learn about what to do and not to do at the proceeding.
“We are here to assist you to prepare for your hearings, see the room, learn about the process and ask questions,” said Crawford, standing in front of the dais where the asylum judge would normally sit at a refugee hearing. “It is your obligation to disclose evidence to support your claim.
Read more

Immigration is again tackling refugee claimants through Provisions in Bill C-43

CBC Radio, The Current, 31 October 2014: Refugee advocates say the federal government’s omnibus bill includes potentially devastating changes to how Canada supports refugees and refugee claimants worry they could lose access to social assistance.

“Immigration is again tackling refugee claimants through a new omnibus bill” said Loly Rico, co-director of FCJ Refugee Centre to CBC Radio. Loly Rico was interview about the federal government’s omnibus bill that includes potentially devastating changes to how Canada supports refugees.

Provisions in Bill C-43 would allow provinces to impose residency requirements for access to social assistance for refugee claimants and other people without permanent status in Canada.

To hear the interview click here

One year on, Canada’s refugee system is failing some of the most vulnerable refugees: CCR

The Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR) today made public its principal observations on Canada’s revised refugee determination system, as we approach the first anniversary of its implementation. On the eve of Human Rights Day, the CCR laments that refugees’ fundamental rights are threatened in Canada.
“The new refugee system is failing some claimants, including the most vulnerable people who have been traumatized by the persecution they have suffered,” said Loly Rico, President. “As Canadians we are proud of our history of welcoming and protecting refugees: unfortunately Canada is now a less welcoming country, and some refugees who need our protection are not getting it.”
On 15 December 2012, major and controversial changes to Canada’s refugee determination system were implemented. The CCR had consistently raised concerns that the new system would fail to offer some refugees the protection they need from Canada.
The CCR has prepared a report on key points in the new system as observed by members, including the following:

  •    The short timelines are causing serious problems: they create high levels of stress and many claimants are unable to prepare themselves adequately for their hearing.
  •     The short timelines are particularly damaging for vulnerable claimants, such as survivors of torture and people with health problems or disabilities.
  •     We have a two-tier system that discriminates against some claimants, who have less access to protection, on arbitrary grounds, notably based on their country of origin.

Overall, the new system suffers from uncertainty and poorly thought-out measures, which may be the result of going from one extreme (too slow hearings) to the other (too quick hearings). The CCR has consistently advocated that the solution lies in the middle (6 month timelines would work for most claimants).
Link to report, New refugee system – one

Media Release:



Canada: Still a Land of Opportunity?

For many immigrants to Canada, our country offered new hope and a new life. Does that still hold true for new Canadians? As part of the “Dude, Where’s My Future?” series, The Agenda examines if Canada is still a land of opportunity for immigrants.

We want to congratulate Treisy Rivera for her amazing participation in this interview broadcasted through The Agenda with Steve Paikin. To see the  interview click here.

 interview Treisy



1 2 3 4 5