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From hardship to hope: Former refugees honoured for courage, strength and determination

August 2, 2019

Ahmad Salem, RRC Peace Award winnerWherever he goes, Ahmad Raseen Salem carries memories of his homeland, and of the people and places he once knew so well. He misses the scent of jasmine in the air, the sounds of kids playing in the street, even the neighbourhood grouch, a shopkeeper named Ali who had a habit of “screaming on the kids all day long.”

That world was destroyed seven years ago, when his family home was bombed by Syrian government forces, killing nine of Salem’s neighbours, five of whom were children under the age of six.

Now 28, Salem was separated from his family for three years, as he moved first to another Syrian province and then to Turkey, where he found work as an English-Arabic translator and was eventually able to have his parents and two younger sisters join him.

Since arriving in Winnipeg as Mennonite church-sponsored refugees in December 2016, the family is building new memories in their adopted country, and Salem says he’s found a home of sorts at Red River College’s Exchange District Campus, where he hopes to one day teach other newcomers.

A new graduate of RRC’s Youth Recreation Activity Worker program, with plans to return to RRC this fall as a student in the Child and Youth Care program, Salem is a recipient of one of two $1,000 Peace Awards, presented annually to students who came to Canada as refugees or refugee claimants.

Peace Awards honour the “courage, strength and determination of students who were forced to flee their homes and countries under threat of persecution, conflict and violence” and who have “persevered in reaching their educational goals, while overcoming challenges and adapting to a new life in Canada.”

Salem and fellow $1,000 Peace Award recipient Kohplorsay Desjardins, an Educational Assistant program graduate, exemplify those qualities, as does Murhambo Basimike, a Municipal Engineering Technology student who was presented with a one-time bonus Peace Award of $750.

Kohplorsay Desjardins, RRC Peace Award winnerWhile Salem was studying to be an English-Arabic translator in Syria, and Basimike attended high school in Uganda after his family fled the Democratic Republic of Congo, Desjardins had a more limited education and no understanding of English when he arrived in Canada with his mother and four siblings in 2007. Just two months old when his family escaped a long-running civil war in Myanmar’s Karen State, he spent the first 10 years of his life in a refugee camp in Thailand.

Now 21, he says schooling at the camp was “not great,” and it lacked many services we take for granted in Canada. He recalls that the first time his mother and siblings rode a bus in Winnipeg, they ended up walking a long distance because they didn’t realize the bus wouldn’t automatically stop at their destination.

His own inability to communicate made him a target for bullies in middle school, but life changed for the better when he attended an English as an Additional Language (EAL) program in high school. The experience taught him the value of education, and he’s already giving back. After he graduated from high school, the Winnipeg School Division hired him as a casual Karen translator for other refugee families, and he works with Peaceful Village, an after-school program he attended as a student.

“That program is usually for immigrants but open to everyone. After I attended, they hired me as a tutor,” he says, adding that it was started at Gordon Bell High School 10 years ago and is now available at six school sites.

With dreams of becoming a teacher, Desjardins attended the University of Winnipeg for a year, but the cost was too high, and he says he was afraid to take out a student loan. He opted for RRC’s Educational Assistant program at the Notre Dame Campus and is now employed as a substitute EA at Winnipeg School Division.

He’d like to someday apprentice as an electrician and eventually become an instructor in the field. And since receiving the Peace Award, he has newfound confidence that he can achieve that goal. He says the award isn’t just about money; it acknowledges his efforts and encourages him to continue on his path.

“The Peace Award kind of … gives a mindset that if I actually focus on a task I can definitely do it, even having to be a refugee, a newcomer with no English before whatsoever,” he says.

“Canada has definitely helped me in achieving my will, or eventually will help me achieve my dreams and grow up to be somebody.”

Murhambo Basimike, RRC Peace Award winnerBasimike, 23, says his Peace Award is helping him reach his educational goals and providing “great relief” as he pays down a student loan. Once wealthy, his family had to flee to Uganda when his father was falsely accused of aiding rebel forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

They lived on the streets for a time, suffering deprivation and near-starvation before his parents were able to find work. Today, Basimike says holding down a job to help support his family and attending school can be stressful, but he is eternally grateful for the opportunities he’s had since his family was relocated to Canada in 2015.

Salem’s family has prospered, as well. His eldest sister is studying English at RRC and his youngest sister is in a university pre-pharmacy course.

This summer, Salem is working full-time with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Winnipeg, which provided funding for his first year of college.

“It was an amazing experience and I’m hoping next year will be the same,” he says. “(It was) the most exciting year last year in almost my whole life.”

Profile by Pat St. Germain (Creative Communications, 1989)