For a long time, Boban Stojanović volunteered at refugee camps across Serbia, where people from Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo sought refuge from the war after the former Yugoslavia crumbled through the 1990s.
He would join the peace, feminist and LGBTQ movements to advocate for equality and human rights. His activism would lead him to speak at workshops in small towns and at international events, such as Montreal Pride in 2014, where he was grand marshal.
The last thing he imagined was becoming a refugee himself one day, in Canada.
“I was a volunteer working with refugees in my country. And here’s my story and journey from being a supporter of refugees to a refugee,” said Stojanović, who fled here for asylum with his partner in 2016 after he was assaulted in Belgrade.
“I was born in a country called Yugoslavia and then there’s a war. You just never know what can happen overnight. Canadians are comfortable but you can find yourself in that situation in a month, a year, 10 years but hopefully never.”
Stojanović’s story is one of many featured by the Refugee Story Bank of Canada, a new initiative to collect and showcase personal stories by migrants who have sought protection in this country from violence, war, oppression, discrimination and persecution.
The idea of a collection of Canadian refugee stories was first conceived in 2015 by University of Calgary professor and cultural historian George Melnyk, who felt inspired by Canada’s national project to resettle as many as 25,000 Syrian refugees over a span of four months.
While individual refugees have written books about their journeys, Melnyk said there had not been a collection of stories by different refugees to highlight the diversity of refugee experiences.
After spending a few years soliciting and editing stories, Melnyk and University of Waterloo social development studies professor Christina Parker published a book called “Finding Refuge in Canada” this spring by Athabasca University Press.
Just before World Refugee Day on Sunday, the duo launched a website to expand the book project into a full repository for Canadian refugee stories.
“I was deeply moved by the emotional impact of being a refugee on people. I was struck by the hard decision making, the issue of fear, the guilt afterward of leaving people behind and the trauma that was involved. All of that comes out in these stories,” Melnyk said.
“Almost all of these stories had difficult beginnings. It’s surprising how many people have come through them and become positive members of the Canadian society. It comes through in the stories. I am impressed by their resilience.”
Stojanović, who now works as a program director for an immigrant settlement agency in Calgary, said it’s crucial for refugees to share the personal accounts of their stories that are beyond sensational media headlines. He just jumped on the opportunity when he was asked to contribute to the book.
“All of our stories are authentic because they came from the hearts of the refugees. They are not polished,” he said. “This is important for our collective memories and for a better understanding of refugees, who are part of Canada. I want to believe my story can be a motivation for others to share theirs.”
As a gay man from Serbia where he faced daily animosity on the streets, Stojanović said being in Canada is like heaven on Earth, with strangers fundraising to help him hire refugee lawyers and churches embracing gender diversity by raising rainbow flags.
“For the first time in my life I did not have the weight of political responsibility on my shoulders. I was physically here, but as a refugee claimant I was in limbo,” he said in his personal story as told to writer Shyen Top.
“My new life in Canada began with more questions than answers. Who am I now? What can I offer society? How will Canadians see me? All these questions revolved around the issue of identity because identity is the fundamental issue facing all refugees who have surrendered their past realities.”
In “From Scars to Stars,” an essay that’s also featured on the story bank’s website, Flora Terah explains the challenges refugees face in their settlement in Canada because of the traumatic experience they endured.
Even though she speaks English fluently and appreciated supporters’ concerns of her well being, Terah said the weather, new culture, and interpersonal interaction scared her.
“My thoughts were fixed on Kenya, and grief was chewing at me. None of my hosts noticed that underneath my smile, there was grief, worry and pain. The story of the refugee woman back in Kenya, whose child was raped and heavily pregnant kept coming to mind as I watched Canadian friends toast my first Christmas in Ottawa,” wrote Terah, who was threatened and attacked while running for public office, to unseat an incumbent in parliament. Her son was later murdered.
“Thoughts continued to race through my head: ‘Soon I will have to go look for my own apartment and be on my own. What dangers will I face? Am I going to be as vulnerable as those women in my country I left back home? What opportunities do I have to continue fighting to redeem my son’s spirit?’ Nobody brought up the post-traumatic stress disorder, grief and depression that come with forceful relocation.”
The Toronto woman said she went on with this “cosmetic happiness” in front of others and into a downward spiral of depression for almost four years. And as she was writing her narrative for the book, it took her back down that valley of darkness.
“This is a very heavy price to pay for liberating the women (in Kenya),” said Terah, who resettled in Canada in 2009 and has been active in public education campaigns on violence against women and children.
“Yet I wouldn’t have known freedom of speech and what walking without looking behind one’s back was like if I hadn’t taken the bold step to say, ‘For my own safety, I will leave.’”
Refugees often are reluctant to share their stories because of the social stigma attached to refugees and mental health issues, she said. On top of that, they are not immune from racism in Canada.
“Some Canadians don’t know our back stories,” said Terah. “I hope by sharing our stories about what we went through, why we came here, how it feels to have lost our family members and what we experience here, we can help others heal. These are stories that Canadians need to hear.”
Victor Porter, who wrote the “Best Place on Earth,” hopes these personal stories can humanize the word and label of “refugee” by giving a context and reference to each of the refugee writers’ experiences.
“Every personal story is important, they’re from refugees or not. Every story counts. The more we read about people’s stories, the more we learn and understand each other, care about the other, and hopefully build a better community, society, nation and world,” said the Vancouverite.
An Argentinian from Buenos Aires, Porter resettled here in 1984, sponsored by the Canadian government as a political refugee, escaping from an oppressive military junta in power.
His story details how he was arrested, jailed and tortured amid a state-sponsored terror campaign. He was held in a 24-storey windowless jail along with other political prisoners for almost two years and detained in another facility for another two years before his release.
“I consider myself lucky, very lucky, because at the time of my arrest I was very fit and was able to endure more and provide confusing answers,” he said.
“No person was subsequently arrested because of me, and this fact continues to give me peace of mind. I do not know what would have happened if the torture sessions had lasted half a minute more. I do not need to know, and I am grateful for this.”
The inmates would try to keep each other engaged with life, with ideas and with hope while sharing stories, knowledge and everything they remembered from the world outside, as well reading as many books as the “censorious” librarian allowed in.
“We all make a big effort to keep everyone’s spirit up. We all had good and bad days. Every aspect of every hour, day, week, month and year was designed to break us physically, spiritually, intellectually. A number of prisoners committed suicide. Talking, reading and thinking allowed us to cope, to stay alive,” he told the Star.
“I stayed alive, came out more or less in one piece, bruised physically and emotionally, but in one piece, still clear and committed to my political beliefs.”
And those beliefs in fairness and social justice have not swayed even after he was transplanted to Canada where he’s worked as dishwasher, beekeeper, production line labourer, advocate, educator, co-ordinator in a provincial program against human trafficking and most recently a union negotiator.
With all the war and conflicts — and the COVID-19 crisis — around the world, Porter said these are difficult and revealing times for everyone to reflect on our lives and values, and to focus more on compassion, fairness and solidarity.
“We must look at every human being as a close relative, and ensure that every living person has at least safety, clean drinking water, food, shelter, freedom, education, the ability to look after their families and a shot at happiness,” he said. “We should not be afraid of our own ability to be good and generous.”
Porter and his friends, including other former refugees from Central and South America, have also helped sponsor others to start a new life here as a way to pay it forward.
“It has resulted in a lot of work, but also an endless source of joy,” he noted.
Stories in the story bank are catalogued with filters by region and topic to assist researchers. Anyone interested in contributing can make their submissions for consideration through its website.