Coming to Canada was probably the most exciting thing that ever happened to me as an adult. The sponsorship came at a time in my life when I did not have much hope for any miracle to happen. Every thing that I did when applying for the sponsorship felt really surreal to me. It almost seemed like at any moment I was going to wake up and realize that this was all just a dream… A dream that my family has been dreaming of for years.
I heard about WUSC the summer I graduated from highschool. I remember the day being March 31st 2008, the same day I graduated from highschool. On our way home, my dad and I passed by the Bangkok refugee center to pick up our monthly allowance and other daily necessities that the refugee center provides each month. Just as we were about to leave, I saw Muriel Lauvige who the education officer at the time walk by and I asked her if there was any scholarships for refugees who wanted to go to university.
I knew UN in Thailand had no funds allocated for post-secondary education for refugees but other organizations sometimes had educational programs to offer refugees. We went back to her office and she gave me my options: an online degree that was not certified, a vocational workshop, and WUSC’s Student Refugee Program sponsorship. The SRP program however had been discontinued in Thailand for the past two years so she warned me not to put too much hope on it. I asked her to contact the main person for WUSC in Canada and plead for my case as I contacted the person as well and pleaded for myself.
Over the next month or so, I spent time researching what WUSC was and what they do. Muriel and I finally received an email on April 24, 2008 stating that WUSC was willing to consider my case; however, there was lot of paper work to fill and ultimately the decision was within the hands of Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) in Thailand.
I had to fill out an SRP application form for WUSC and a permanent residency application form for CIC. I also had to fax copies of my transcripts, refugee papers, recommendation letters and so forth. The process with WUSC headquarters exclusively was quite easy for they were very eager to help. By the end of May I knew that WUSC was willing to sponsor but only if the immigration and medical process would work out. On June 17, 2008 I got an email from the Canadian Embassy in Thailand inviting me for an interview on June 24. It is funny because I remember everything I wore that day and how I felt walking to the embassy that warm morning. The interview went smoothly and I was basically accepted even before the interview; the interview was just a formality and they needed to take pictures and have me sign a few papers. I felt like I was on cloud nine that day!!
Two weeks later I went for my medical test. The medical test went smoothly until the nurse looked into my eyelids and I could tell something was wrong. There was a group of us (refugees) getting the medical test and I was the only one asked to return the following week. The nurse refused to tell me what was wrong so I went back to the hospital and they took quite a few blood tests. I found later on that I had severe anemia… a regular person’s blood count is 13 and mine was 5. Even though technically anemia is not grounds to deny someone immigration, I was not allowed to leave until I could increase my blood count. WUSC aims to bring in their students around late August early September. I could not leave at August so my trip was rescheduled for December 9. At this point I was really worried. I was so used to being hopeful about something then things not working out and so I began to believe that I was not going to get the sponsorship after all. I was given iron pills to take and I was given blood tests once a month.
I took the pills, tried to find work, and just went on with my life as if WUSC had never happened. I needed to be able to deal with worst case scenario if the trip was altogether cancelled after all. In late October I was told that University of Regina was going to sponsor me. Later on in November I was given the date of my trip and what I needed to expect upon my arrival to Canada. Around the same time, a political riot was going on in Bangkok and sometime near the end of November the protestors took over the main airport. At this point I was holding on to the fact that my trip was on the 9th and the King’s birthday was on the 5th and so there was no way the protestors would hold the airport during and past the king’s birthday. Sure enough the protests in the airport ended after much chaos, financial loss, and at least five lives lost along the way. Though the airport was running when my flight date was, my flight got cancelled for the time being. Less than a week later my new flight schedule was set for December 16 and final preparations were made.
Part of these preparations was an exit visa. Being a refugee made me a illegal person in Thailand and so in order for me to exit Thailand I needed to either pay a huge fine or go through the immigration detention in Bangkok. I checked myself in to the immigration jail for two weeks. It was interesting being there because there were all kinds of refugees and illegal immigrants in the jail; Cambodians, North Koreans, Africans, Indians, and the occasional western face. There was less than 8 of us in detention that were eventually leaving for resettlement in the west. Every one else was going to be deported sooner or later. I had packed my bags before I went to detention and so did the other 8 or so people that were leaving. The days were long and wearisome. I had to keep being thankful that at least I was eventually heading off to Canada and not being deported.
On December 16, I was woken up at 4 in the morning and I was told to get ready to leave. We had less than half an hour to wake up and go through the check out process from the detention. We were then loaded in vehicles with a detention officer at each end of the car door, making sure we don’t escape till we get to the airport and out of the country. I still remember the ride to the airport. It was quiet, peaceful, and dark. The expressway to the airport meant that we were overlooking the city all the way to the airport. In the dark night, lights created the outline of the city and for first time I realized I was truly leaving Thailand… a country that had been home to be for 6 years of my life. It was surprisingly sad to say the least.
My plane ride from Thailand to Canada took about 28-30 hours. It was basically Bangkok to Tokyo to Vancouver to Calgary then to Regina. I was extremely tired and my eyes were bloodshot when I arrived in Vancouver. I was greeted in Vancouver by an official who I assume welcomes landed immigrants on their first stop to Canada. He stamped through my CIC papers and got me lunch. For some reason I was expecting rice with curry or stir-fry, instead lunch was a vegetarian subway and apple juice. That was so weird to me and I wasn’t used to the taste of mustard so I couldn’t eat more than a few bites. When I was in Calgary, the lady beside told me to bundle up since it was cold. I was wearing a coat and flats for shoes. I put on socks and figured that would be enough. Little did I know what winter actually meant. The plane in Regina did not have the connecting passageway between the plane and the airport, instead we walked down the stairs from the plane to the runway and into the airport. The moment I stepped out of the plane I thought I would die. The cold was freezing and painful and the fact that I was so tired made me so numb and unaware.
Everything that happened after that was almost like a hazy dream… I was greeted by strange faces and driven to my room in Luther. I remember talking to people but not remembering what I said. I went downstairs to walk the people who welcomed me out and got lost on way back. It really was like a dream. A week and half later I still struggled to sleep at night and stay awake at day due to the 13 hours difference between Thailand and Canada, and also due to the unusual quietness of Regina in comparison to Bangkok.
Almost three years later and I feel like home in Regina. I welcome the seasons as if I have always been used to them, I enjoy events and gatherings knowing that this will be home for the far future, and I listen to Canadian history and find myself identifying a part of me with Canadians. I have been an alien ever since I was four and finally I feel like I am home. I know that it took a wonderful vision for WUSC to be created and make changes in lives of refugees across the globe and I hope that I can be a part of passing on that change to many more refugees that will come through WUSC.
As I go through the emails that led up to my arrival to Canada, I realize how many people were involved to make this opportunity possible for me. Some of the people I never knew and never met in person. I especially thank Muriel Lauvige who was the education administrator of the Bangkok Refugee Center in 2008. Muriel truly made it her business to see me get this sponsorship and for this I can never thank her enough. Her kindness and dedication will always be remembered by my family. Asnaketch (Asni) Mekonnen who is the senior program officer for WUSC’s SRP program is nothing more than an angel in disguise. Her compassion for my case reminds that even though our world can show so much hatred and pain, there is still so much hope and love to make us believe that a better tomorrow is possible. Michael Emblem who was the Vietnam Regional Director for WUSC gave me a brief interview when he was passing through Thailand for a day before heading to Sri Lanka. I did not take the TOEFL test so he was the person that confirmed to WUSC headquarters that I indeed spoke English fluently and for that I thank him. Philip Landon was Director of University and College Programming for WUSC and for all I know he was the person that got Muriel in touch with Asni. I thank him for kindly making that connection possible and thus aiding the sponsorship process. Mr. Anderson was the Immigration counselor for the Canadian Embassy in Thailand during 2008 and the very person who approved my entry to Canada. He was so encouraging and kind during my interview and I thank him for approving my application. Last but not the least is the University of Regina Group for Refugees and WUSC Regina who were eager to sponsor me despite being a short notice case.
The work that local committees do cannot be taken for granted for they not only provide means for acquiring a post-secondary degree, but they also provide a home, a support network, and a brighter future for refugees like me that come to Canada each year. Thank you all so much from the bottom of my heart and may God continue to bless the work that WUSC does across the globe.