As country music blares throughout the dining hall, five families are enjoying pancakes, eggs and lots of syrup – a typical Canadian breakfast. Conversations in Arabic, Swahili and French fill the spacious bright room, competing with the small portable radio in the kitchen.
The chatter quickly fades as we step inside the room. The families stop eating and look up from their meal. We awkwardly take a seat near an empty table. A young Congolese girl leaves her family and slowly approaches our table to take a seat. She stares at us curiously for a minute and with a smile she says, “When did you arrive?”
This is not an unusual question in this space. She means when did we arrive in Canada; it doesn’t occur to her that we might be Canadian. The young girl reveals to us that it’s her family’s 19th day and they are leaving after lunch.
While it may appear that we are in a hotel, we’re actually inside a resettlement center. A unique facility designed to look and feel like a home, the Margaret Chisholm Resettlement Centre has hosted more than 11,000 government-assisted refugees since it opened in 1994. Offering a 19-day crash course on Canadian life – practical guidance on housing, health care and schooling – it aims to ease refugees’ entry into a strange new land.
The center, which can accommodate up to 70 residents at a time, is tucked away in a quiet Calgary neighborhood. On the surface it appears to be a quaint white house, but for those who stay here it holds a significant meaning. You’ll often hear former residents say, “It was my first home” or “My life started here.”
While many good memories have been made in this house, including stories of siblings reuniting or the birth of a new family member, the opposite is also true. In many ways, the house is a living witness to some of the greatest migration tragedies our world has faced and still confronts today.
For the past 22 years, the center has received refugees fleeing violence following the collapse of the former Yugoslavia, those escaping political persecution in Colombia and families caught in the middle of the civil war in Syria.
Many of the families staying in the house have lived in and traveled across multiple countries in order to reach Canada. They share a bond that only those who have experienced displacement can fully understand.
Even though the center is meant to feel like home, it can sometimes feel like a sterile environment in which everything is temporary. The refugee families come with very few personal belongings. The rooms are simple, with only a bed and a few chairs. Residents use plastic cutlery and there are hand sanitizers every few steps. This can sometimes feel extremely isolating for residents.
Much of the warmth found in the house is generated in the interaction between refugees who do not share a common culture or language. The families share information about where they will be moving to, help by serving as interpreters for each other and exchange contact details upon leaving the house. They find the meaning of home not in a physical place, but through the relationships they form with each other.
Our previous project, “Living at the Border,” examined the integration process in Italy through the eyes of African refugees. With this observational film, we wanted to see what resettlement looks like in our own country, Canada. Our goal with “19 Days” is to show the human side of the refugee resettlement process.
There are more than 60 million displaced people in the world, according to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR). On World Refugee Day, we invite you to watch “19 Days” as a way of joining the conversation about the global refugee crisis.
The film sheds light on the complex realities faced by refugee families during their first few weeks in Canada. It not only poses the critical question of what it really means to integrate, but it also advances a discussion around how we can create inclusive and supportive environments for vulnerable populations.
Back at the reception house, black garbage bags stuffed with clothing and other household items sit idly in the foyer. A yellow taxi pulls up to the house and the young Congolese girl runs through the hall to tell her family that it’s time to leave.
Three new Syrian refugee families are arriving. As we begin setting up our equipment to film “19 Days,” a dozen Syrian children surround us in the hallway smiling and babbling “Hello” and “Good morning” at us. Their enthusiasm brings mixed emotions. We are happy that these children are safe in Canada, but sad at what they have seen and lost and the continuation of the refugee crisis, one that seems to have no end in sight.
The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.