Mama Nancy

That's what they call her, these desperate refugees who arive at Nancy Pocock's house, clutching the scrap of paper with her address

By Brydon Gombay | 1989-04-01 12:00:00

ONE SUNNY WINTER DAY I went to talk to Nancy Pocock, coordinator of the Quaker Committee for Refugees and winner of the Lester Pearson Peace Medal in 1987. She lives in the house where she grew up, the daughter of a professor of Old Testament Studies at the University of Toronto. On the door are two notices in Spanish: one about office hours (Monday to Friday, 9-5) and another asking people please to shut the door (most Latin American refugees are unaccustomed to Canadian winters and thermostats).

A marmalade cat was sunning itself on the porch. Inside I was met by a young Latin American man and a black cat, "who is the greeter," said Nancy later. "I tell them they are both First World cats."

Nancy was interviewing a Guatemalan refugee who was concerned about his family, unable to apply for help until his landed immigrant status was established. He and his brother had been union members; his niece had been beaten up a few days before. When she went to the Canadian Embassy for help, she was told to come back in fifteen days. "In fifteen days she could be dead," said Nancy. "So I got in touch with Peace Brigades International for help to see if she and her two children could be sent right away. But I can't send everybody to them; they are in danger, and there is a limit to what they can do. As for the refugees, they never blame me if I can't help, even though they come hoping that I can do magic."

Throughout our conversation the telephone never stopped ringing; refugees and their helpers came and went, interviews proceeded in one room while in another people were waiting talking quietly: a background hum of activity and concern. Fortunately, Nancy had help; one man in particular does miracles helping these people, forced to live on welfare, to find affordable housing. There's now a backlog of 85,000 refugee claimants. Not allowed to work, many have been here as long as two years, fearful about families back home.

These tightly knit communities help each other a lot; they don't want to be on welfare, but though the government has now said they can work, the work permits and social security numbers come through slowly, and employees will not hire them without these papers. Now Welfare is beginning to tell them they should be working-but how can they without the necessary papers? Far from wanting to take advantage of our welfare system, the refugees make jobs; they consume, they pay taxes, they are contributing to our economy.

Nancy and her husband were jewellery designers with a shop on Hazelton Avenue when it was a broken-down rooming house area-Yorkville pioneers before it was trendy. Each summer they would close down their shop and go off to Grindstone Island where, during the sixties, they helped Murray Thomson with peace training seminars, which presented the trainees with simulated conflict situations.

"We were way ahead of our time," Nancy said. "Long before 1970 we had a scenario that Quebec had separated and the Americans had sent up an army to whip them back into shape. The Canadian government had fled to Winnipeg, and some of the U.S. Army was sent in to subdue us. An interesting experiment. Our attempt at nonviolent resistance was defeated because of the children. The "soldiers" threatened to take children away from their parents. How could we let that happen? Afterwards we had a session comparing our own perceptions of what we had done with the impressions of the opposition. Acts we had thought were nonviolent turned out to have been very threatening.

"Another time, we were attacked by a motorcycle gang-a real one, signed up by some students-on the island in the middle of the night! Really frightening! But the leader fell down and broke his arm, so my husband had to take him to the hospital at four a.m. They all became our friends.

Important things happened at Grindstone, with people from the U.S. and England as well as from Canada. We used to know in the summer what would happen in the peace movement the next year from what went on at Grindstone."

Nancy was a founder of Voice of Women and during the Vietnam War she represented Friends (Quakers) on the Inter-Church Committee for Refugees, helping draft dodgers-refugees of another sort, but also fleeing from war. Just as she was ready to return to her jewellery business six years ago, she met a Quaker from Dallas who asked what Canadians were doing to help Salvadoran refugees. Out of this meeting came a commitment to assist refugees in detention camps on the U.S.-Mexico border.

"I had no idea it would take over my life, my house and all my thoughts. But it's natural for artists to become involved in causes; like William Morris for whom art and social concern were entwined. He was a hero to my husband and me."

So Nancy had an idea: Central American refugees should apply for refugee status to Canadian Embassies in their own countries, given the difficulties they faced in getting out to apply. But interviewing officers choose those who will settle well in Canada, a criterion which does not always take into account the danger many face.

Two years ago, when the U.S. enacted laws threatening employers of "illegals" with prison or fines, an influx of such people clamored to enter Canada. With the simultaneous arrival of illegal "boat people," the government panicked, and enacted bad legislation in response to the slowness of the admission system then in place. A Commission headed by Rabbi Plaut had made good suggestions for dealing with the backlog, but the government ignored its advice, and on January 1, 1989, brought in new legislation.

Before they can make a refugee claim, refugees must now establish their credibility (no easy task when you are terrified, don't speak the language, and may lack the right papers) and eligibility (no one knows exactly what that means). According to the U.N. Convention, of which Canada is a signatory, refugees are people who have left their countries and are unwilling or unable to return because of their fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, or membership in a particular social or political group. Under our new law, it is insufficient to prove membership in a persecuted group; reasons for personal fear must be established. Though the idea of sending refugees to so-called "safe" countries has not yet been tried, as part of the law it could be used at any time.

Nancy, on Bill C84: "People who help a refugee who lacks the proper papers are liable for a fine of $10,000 and five years in jail; if they help ten people it's $100,000 and ten years in jail. Of course, many people fleeing for their lives don't have the right papers. These laws aren't targeting the people who are taking advantage of the situation, the refugee 'consultants' who are charging them huge sums for things I do every day. I just heard of a couple with a baby-illegals-who paid a 'coyote' $1,000 to get them to L.A. Once there, he demanded another $500 for the baby. They got away somehow-but already he's caught up with them, told them he'll harm their family back home if they don't pay up.

"I'm against the new policy, which is making it so hard for the real refugees to get in. The bogus ones do it much more easily, coming to the screening prepared, with the right papers, while the refugee who's had to run, leave his family behind, is frightened and can't speak well. Recently an Ethiopian eighteen-year-old was screened out, despite the fact that his parents had been killed (he didn't know of his mother's death till after the hearing) and his brother tortured. Is this the kind of caring society we wish to become? They tell us this is a 'shakedown' period, this first month-but during the shakedown some of the people they send back will be killed. Fortunately we have some wonderful lawyers who work night and day to help on this issue. Also, we're trying to monitor what happens to people who are sent back. That's difficult, because they disappear. If we don't hear from them, we never know what's happened to them.

"Two people make the decisions at the hearing: One is from immigration, has been doing it for years, is trained to be skeptical and tough. The other is from the new Refugee Board, with some superficial training. Some of those are good, caring people who know something about refugees, but most are just appointments, perhaps for political reasons. It takes time, and knowing refugees, to be able to interview them properly, and distinguish truth from falsehood."

Nancy expects the enforcement of laws against illegal immigrants to become much tougher, forcing them into hiding. They will work for a pittance under terrible conditions; unscrupulous people will profit from their vulnerability.

THE LEGISLATION WILL produce third-class non-citizens. "We have to change people's ideas, because meaningful change has to come from the people. We have to talk and talk."

The Canadian Council of Churches is legally challenging the new law; this is bound to be expensive since it is likely to go all the way to the Supreme Court. Send cheques, earmarked for the court challenge, to 60 St. Clair Ave. E., Toronto M4T 1M9. A new network, Vigil, is establishing phone trees across the country for urgent action to protect refugees at risk. Vigil may be reached c/o the Jesuit Centre, 947 Queen St. E., Toronto, M4M 1J9 Ph: (416) 469-9790, fax (416) 469-3579.

Brydon Gombay is an Associate Editor of PEACE.

Peace Magazine Apr-May 1989

Peace Magazine Apr-May 1989, page 16. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Brydon Gombay here

Peace Magazine homepage