A common bond

Ali and other asylum-seekers may cross into Canada with few belongings, but their hearts are full of hope


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We met Ali on a comparatively balmy Monday morning. We were searching for three asylum-seekers who had crossed the border a few days before; he was scrubbing dishes in Salvation Army’s second-floor open kitchen. 

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/03/2017 (2206 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

We met Ali on a comparatively balmy Monday morning. We were searching for three asylum-seekers who had crossed the border a few days before; he was scrubbing dishes in Salvation Army’s second-floor open kitchen. 

That morning, Ali and other asylum-seekers made breakfast together. He volunteered to wash up. 

“If people welcome us in Canada, then we have to clean the stuff they gave us,” he said cheerfully. “If you eat (from) a plate and you don’t wash, then you’re not kind. Keep them clean, put them back in a good place. It’s a must.”

My colleague, photographer Phil Hossack, showed Ali a photo of the men we were hoping to find. Ali was apologetic; he hadn’t seen them. But it was early, he pointed out helpfully: most asylum-seekers weren’t out and about just yet.  

As luck would have it, we soon found all three men we were searching for. We also got to know Ali a little more.

My conversation with Ali never made it into last weekend’s 49.8 cover story. In that feature, myself, Hossack and journalist Randy Turner followed the other three asylum-seekers, starting from their first steps across the border. 

Still, my thoughts keep slipping back to Ali, and the conversation we had on that morning. So I’d like to take a minute and sketch his story — believing, in a way, that knowing its shape can help us understand how to move forward. 

It’s hard to describe Ali. He is 30 years old, but with an easy smile that makes him look a decade younger. He is soft-spoken and friendly, and likes to dress nicely; that day, he wore dark jeans and a preppy long-sleeved sweater. 

He’d pulled together that outfit from the Salvation Army’s supply of used clothing, he told me. 

When Ali crossed the border late last month, he didn’t come alone. His 37-year-old wife of three years was with him; she wound up staying on a women’s floor of the Salvation Army. He showed me her photo with a newlywed’s pride. 

They fell in love thanks to an airport; he delivered cargo, she worked at a gift shop on the concourse. They started talking, and then exchanged numbers. You already know how the rest goes: love is the same all over the world. 

“When you get the number of a lady, the story goes from there,” Ali said, with a shy smile. 

Boundless optimism

Like some other asylum-seekers we spoke to, Ali was hesitant to discuss details of why he fled his home country of Djibouti. He was proud to say the country is “friends” with the United States, and that Djibouti is a peaceful place. 

But it was “family problems,” he said; that’s why they left. They weren’t safe there anymore, he said. 

In that situation, them leaving makes sense. Djibouti is a tiny nation, about three-quarters the size of Vancouver Island; most of its 850,000 people live in a densely-packed capital that’s a fraction of Winnipeg’s physical size. 

So if one’s life was threatened, it would be difficult to hide there. Especially if those threats came from family.  

One could speculate what Ali’s “family problems” might be, but I’m not in the business of guessing. At any rate, Canada’s refugee board will hear the whole story; it will decide if Ali and his wife qualify for refugee status. 

Besides, what fascinated me about Ali wasn’t his background, but his brightness. Throughout our 30-minute conversation, Ali was boundlessly optimistic. Even in the fragile purgatory of his situation, his hope was undimmed. 

He is determined to be successful; that’s important to him. His dream is to get a job in Canada, save up and go to university to study business. One day, he mused, maybe he would open a supermarket or some kind of store. 

It wasn’t idle talk. On his phone, Ali keeps digital copies of self-help classics, such as the 1989 bestseller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. He devoured that book during his quiet first week at the Salvation Army. 

“This gives you good ideas to develop yourself,” he said. “You have to read always. Otherwise you become illiterate.”

He reads his books in English, rather than translations into French, which is one of Djibouti’s two official languages. For Ali, that is a point of pride too: 10 years ago, he started teaching himself English by watching cable news.

When asked if Canada was appealing because French is an official language — he can conduct any government business en francais, if he wishes — Ali shook his head. He sees English as part of the puzzle of success.  

“English is an international language,” he said, waving his hand for emphasis. “Anywhere you go, they speak English. If you speak English, you understand everyone. I am happy to speak it everyday. I like always to speak English.” 

‘Our intention is to work’

I think about Ali now, as the political storm over asylum-seekers continues to crackle. The issue will only get more complex and more difficult, as more people cross Canada’s border. Already, temporary housing is growing scarce. 

But this is not simply a political issue, or a matter of logistics. It is, at its heart, a story about people. It is a story about Ali and his wife; it is a story about Shahadat and Subir, who agreed to be featured in our cover story last week. 

Every asylum-seeker brings their own story to Canada. We cannot tell all of them. Yet to divine the best path forward, we must understand something of the human lives hanging in the balance: who they are and why they’ve taken this risk. 

This will become more pressing, if the numbers grow. With that understanding, we can ensure a national response guided by the best of our instincts. Without it, we lack the information necessary to develop informed opinions.

For instance, when Provencher MP Ted Falk suggested asylum-seekers were “taking advantage of Canada’s generosity,” that described none of the people I met. All were eager to contribute; none wanted to be burdens. 

“We don’t want to take money from the government and sleep, that’s not our intention,” Ali told me, when I asked about his plans for the future. “Our intention is to work for Canada, to work for the people. 

“We will push the country to the front, not the back,” he added. “I think countries like America were built by immigrants, because immigrants are very strong people.” 

I don’t know if Ali and his wife will have their refugee claim approved. Until that decision their future is uncertain, their lives paused in time. So for now Ali will keep dreaming; he will keep washing dishes and studying self-help tomes. 

Perhaps one day, those habits will make him a highly effective Canadian. The way he crossed the border may have been irregular; but there is nothing irregular about that pure, simple hope. 



Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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