Mary Jo Leddy. Toronto: Harper 1997
IN CANADA you don't have to go far to find a refugee. But how often do we make an effort to hear their stories and become their friends?
Mary Jo Leddy lives at Toronto's Romero House where refugees arrive when there's no other place to go. The book she has written comes at a time when it is really needed, when doors are slamming shut here and in many countries and sentiment against taking in more refugees is rising.
Canada is still a beacon of hope for people fleeing torture, war, discrimination and poverty. They arrive here by many routes from countries such as Eritrea, Sri Lanka, Somalia and Zaire. But the country of origin loses its importance at Romero House where all are thrown together and become a temporary family under Mary Jo's gentle guidance.
Mary Jo has been the night manager there for six years and tells the stories of the refugees just as she has met and worked with them, person by person. The book begins with short chapters, Semira, Sir George, Mrs. Wow, snapshots of these fascinating people. Humour surfaces as cultures mix. The refugees are strong people (or they wouldn't have made it this far) and eager to become Canadians. Mary Jo is fascinated by the children, even mischievous Fearless Fred who pulls the plug on her computer and says to her: "You funny lady".
The border referred to in the book's title is the U.S. border, where people turned down by Canada are loaded into security vans with bars on the windows and driven to the American side of Niagara Falls. "Very few people have seen the faces of refugees as they are being pushed into a security van - not the lawyers, the panel members, the politicians and not the bureaucrats in Immigration," she writes.
No doubt Immigration has a difficult time sorting out the facts in these cases but I wasn't prepared for the callous treatment of those already accepted into Canada, telling them they have too many children, for instance.
Sometimes the refugees are placed in Celebrity Inn, nothing to celebrate. It's a detention centre near Toronto's Pearson airport where people are locked in and brought to the detention review centre in handcuffs and leg irons. The whole refugee process has to be the most insidious bureaucratic nightmare in Canada. The contradictions are many - for instance, refugee claimants with jobs waiting but not allowed to work.
Of course Mary Jo would get involved in the justice issues behind the stories. Before long she was writing to bureaucrats and helping to form the Holy Trinity Sanctuary Group in case refugees needed to be hidden from the authorities.
There are of course many helpful people - Lyn Haley, the Bag Lady of Brampton who supplies free clothing, Winnifred Simpson, a nurse, who comes for tea and notes what the refugees need. This is what the book hopes to accomplish, for the reader to see refugees as neighbours and treat them with respect.
The book has useful appendices: The Geneva Convention on Refugees, The Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and The Convention on the Rights of the Child, all of which have been signed and ratified by Canada. In true activist fashion the book also has key addresses for non-governmental groups and the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration (Ottawa, ON K1A 1L1).
The figures show that we are not doing our part: number of refugees in the world not permanently settled, 15,337,000; estimate number uprooted people 50 million. Total immigration to Canada in 1995, including 24,968 refugees: 212,270. With a declining population, refugees are needed just to keep the population number we now have.
In 1996 Mary Jo Leddy received the Order of Canada for her humanitarian work. She teaches at Regis College and I'm grateful she still finds time to write.
Reviewed by Shirley Farlinger, a Toronto writer and activist.