The Crime of Aggression



Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany, Oleksii Makeleiv assumed his post in October 2022, appointed after the former Ukraine ambassador made a series of incendiary headlines that included publicly calling the German Prime Minister, Olaf Schultz, a liverwurst, a deeply German insult.


Makeleiv’s tenure has been noticeably calmer, a testament to his diplomatic skills, although his responsibilities remain as challenging. Upon his departure from Kiev, Makeleiv says he was given only two key instructions; acquire Leopard 2 tanks and seek justice. While the delivery of the long-awaited German built tanks in March 2023 fulfilled the first instruction, the pursuit of justice remains a complex and arduous task.


On a warm night in May, 2023, I met Makeleiv at a pre-dinner cocktail hour in an exquisite Berlin apartment with sweeping vistas of the central train station and the city’s waterways. These gatherings form a crucial part of Makeleiv’s duties, to make his country’s case to German politicians, historians, human rights lawyers, politically active artists and, on this evening, Beth Van Schaack, the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice.


Earlier in the day, Van Schaack had reiterated U.S. support for justice and accountability in Ukraine. The venue, the Pilecki Institute, was an apt setting for a discussion on accountability. This Polish Institute in the heart of the German capital is dedicated to researching 20th century history including Nazi war crimes and also collects testimonies from Ukrainian refugees of more recent Russian atrocities.


“Ukraine will be the frontline of justice; the majority of cases will happen in Ukrainian courts,” Van Schaack told the audience.


Ukrainian prosecutors have already recorded a staggering number of cases, more than 80 thousand individual war crimes. Ukraine’s domestic courts focus on ‘direct perpetrator’ crimes. More than a dozen war crime suspects have been convicted on charges including rape, murder, and shelling of residential infrastructure, according to Ukrainian prosecutors. However, these are low level Russians, foot soldiers, mostly from the ranks of prisoners of war. Nearly half of the war crime convictions against Russia soldiers have been in absentia, allowed under Ukrainian law since 2014.


In her Berlin address, Van Schaack described a higher court to address the crime of aggression.


“The U.S. favors an “internationalized” tribunal deeply rooted within the Ukrainian national system,” Van Schaack announced to a packed house.


This is far from Ukrainian demands for an international war crimes tribunal deeply rooted in the model of the 1945 Nuremberg tribunal. As for the U.S. preferred model, legal experts drawn parallels between the U.S. proposed court, an ‘internationalized tribunal” and the internationalized tribunal in Iraq, established for the trial of Saddam Hussein, rather than drawing directly from the precedents set at the Nuremberg trials after WWII.


Ambassador Van Schaack’s remarks in Berlin were the strongest signal yet that Washington supports the investigation of the crime of aggression, the key crime in Nuremburg proceedings, but support for an ‘internationalized court” is also a clear limit in how far the administration is willing go at this time.


Russia’s top leaders and commanders accountable for actions committed on their orders, including President Vladimir Putin, would be immune from prosecution in a Ukrainian court.


Ukrainian officials muted criticism of the U.S. ambassador’s remarks, but there is a gap between Ukraine and key allies concerning the establishment of an international tribunal, the only court with the jurisdiction to try the Russian leadership.


“This is where you get the fracturing,” says Creighton University law professor Michael Kelly, “Ukraine still wants the international model. Because Ukraine has been very busy building up its rule of law bonafide through all of the other international litigation that it’s been engaged in, not only at the ICC, but at the International Court of Justice, where it asked for and was granted provisional measures, and sued Russia.”


Ukraine has also sued Russia in the Law of the Sea Tribunal, the Permanent Court of Arbitration and the European Court of Human Rights.


“All of these international tribunals are ruling in favor of Ukraine,” says Kelly.


“The world is living a Ukraine moment, the massive mobilization to investigate and prosecute war crimes in Ukraine has already surpassed any precedent,” explains Reed Broody, a war crimes prosecutor who led the 25-year effort to bring a former Chadian dictator to justice and has written about his work in a book, “To Catch a Dictator: The Pursuit and Trial of Hissène Habré.


“Nobody’s going to be putting the handcuffs on Vladimir Putin anytime soon. But these are crimes that have no statute of limitations that will hang over his head forever,” adds Broody.


Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is “the most egregious case of aggression we’ve seen. If you don’t prosecute Putin for this now, you might as well kiss the crime of aggression, goodbye forever.”


While details still remain vague, three models have emerged:

A Tribunal based on a multilateral treat between Ukraine and will partners.
A tribunal based on an agreement between Ukraine and the U.N. endorsed by a United National General Assembly resolution
A hybrid chamber rooted in Ukraine’s domestic law with international assistance.


There is no international consensus on any of these models.


However, February 24, 2024 dramatically changed the political landscape.

Europe was shaken by the war on its eastern flank as Russian troops and tanks launched a massive invasion of neighboring Ukraine, igniting the most severe political and military crisis on the continent since World War 11.

Russian President Vladimir Putin offered his justification in a national address. His aim, to “demilitarize” and “de-Nazify” Ukraine, he said. He repeated unsubstantiated allegations that Ukrainian forces had been carrying out a ‘genocide’ in breakaway pro-Russian territories in the East. Putin had used similar rational in earlier military campaigns in eastern Ukraine and in Crimea.

On the first day of the invasion, U.S. Defense officials said Russia appeared intent on “decapitating” Ukraine’s government and installing a pro-Russian regime in its place.

As evening fell, Russian Grad missiles struck Ukraine’s capital, further north, Russian forces captured the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, which suffered a catastrophic meltdown in 1986. Within hours of the invasion, Ukrainian civilians began to flee west, an exodus that prompted Poland to eventually establish nine reception centers along its border to address what soon became the largest movement of refugees since World War II.

Moscow’s invasion of its western neighbor appeared to be part of a post-Soviet playbook launched in the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya led by then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. In 1999, the aim of the brutal military campaign was to ensure Chechnya would remain part of Russia. Another former republic, neighboring Georgia, was the next target and then Crimea and the eastern provinces of Ukraine. The Russian pattern was set and, it seemed, so was the Western reaction; muted at best, a tacit recognition of Putin’s ‘sphere of influence.’


After a NATO summit in Romania, in 2008 in which Vladimir Putin was an invited guest, the Associated Press wrap up of the meeting noted:


“The Kremlin realized it doesn’t have the power to force the West to reverse its recognition of Kosovo’s independence or persuade Washington to drop its plan to deploy missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic. But Putin has had notable success in blocking NATO membership for its former Soviet neighbors — Ukraine and Georgia.”


Putin read those signals, says Broody as an indication that NATO powers “accepted this Russia idea that, in the neighborhood, they can do as they please.”


The massive invasion in February 24, 2022 jolted the international system. But what was it about this invasion that was so different than those before?


“The illegality is crystal clear. The brutality of the campaign, systematic terror inflicted on the Ukrainian people,” says Klaus Kress, Professor of Criminal Law. He formerly served in the German Federal Ministry of Justice.


“The deliberate and systematic violation of the rules governing the conduct of war is as bad as it can get,” he adds. There were additional factors that changed the stakes.


“A brutal all-out war of aggression based on the denial of the identity of an entire people, based on the idea that a nation does not deserve to exist, to just sweep it away? A reaction at this moment in time is just imperative,” insists Kress.



“This was a full frontal ‘fuck you’ invasion,” says Peter Pomerantsev, a British journalist, and the author of “Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia. He was born in Ukraine and launched a Ukraine justice project known as The Reckoning in the early days of the Russian invasion.


He adds that Europe hasn’t seen a major Second World War style land grab for a long time. “We thought states didn’t do that anymore.”


Shock quickly gave way to a profound and unprecedented “justice mobilization” including squads of international war crimes investigators dispatched across Ukraine. Six European countries signed on to a Joint Investigative Team tied to the International Criminal Court (ICC) as Ukraine revived a dormant 2014 referral.


The UN and the EU created commissions to document war crimes.


The US State Department announced the creation of the Conflict Observatory “to identify, track, and document possible atrocities in Ukraine.”  Organized in the weeks leading up to the Russian invasion, the Observatory partnered with outside war crime investigators who specialize in OSINT, open source investigations, using publicly available information, satellite imagery, phone videos, and social media, to piece together evidence of war crimes and to track down war criminals.


Russian President Vladimir Putin’s world became smaller in March 2023 after the International Criminal Court issued the first indictment and arrest warrant for Putin and another Russian official over alleged involvement in the abduction of Ukrainian children and teenagers. The warrant means Putin could be arrested and sent to The Hague if he travels to any ICC member state.


He has been indicted for both his individual criminal responsibility and his command responsibility. The two charges indicate that he bears responsibility for committing the alleged crimes and for failing to control his subordinates who allegedly committed those crimes.


But there is a limit to the ICC’s jurisdiction, as Van Schaack pointed out in her Berlin address.


“There is at present a jurisdictional gap in our system of international justice, the International Criminal Court does not have jurisdiction over the crime of aggression committed in Ukraine.”




On the 5th day of the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Phillipe Sands, a British specialist in international law, made the case for an international tribunal that has the jurisdiction to charge Russia’s top leadership with the crime of aggression in a guest editorial published in the Financial Times. “Why not create a dedicated international criminal tribunal to investigate Putin and his acolytes.?” he proposed.


“None of the war crimes in Ukraine would be taking place if the war had not been started,” Sands explained in an interview from his home in Paris. Sands is the director of the Centre on International Courts and Tribunals at the University College London. The invasion itself is the crime, says Sands, “The reality is that war crimes and crimes against humanity are only occurring because of the crime of aggression. It is the crime from which all the other crimes follow.”


The crime of aggression was the central crime in Nuremberg. Robert H. Jackson, the U.S. chief prosecutor at post world war II tribunal addressed the issue in his opening remarks of the 1945 trial.


“The ultimate step in avoiding periodic wars, is to make statesman responsible to law. And let me make clear that while this is first applied against German aggressors, if it to serve a useful purpose, it must condemn aggression by other nations, including those which sit here now in judgement.”


“Those which sit here now in judgement” the western allies, including Moscow, would be tested by the 2022 Russia invasion of Ukraine.


Within days of Sand’s proposal in the Financial Times, Ukraine’s President urged his western partners to support an international court established through a vote at the United Nation General Assembly, skirting the Security Council where Moscow has a veto.


The crime of aggression, says Sands, is “The only way, with any degree of certitude, that you reach Mr. Putin and those who sit with him.”


Crafting a workable statute to address individual responsibility had been a long-time goal of international jurists. After WWI, the treaty of Versailles had a provision that could be used to prosecute the German Kaiser, but “the Allied Powers didn’t get their hands on him,” says Creighton University law professor Michael Kelly.


The Kaiser cut his own deal, Kelly explained, “He cut a deal with the Dutch government to go into exile. The Netherlands basically said, ‘okay, cousin, you can come to the Netherlands as long as you bring your gold,” and Kelly added, “He ended up dying in 1943, just living out his life in the Netherlands.”


Aron Trainin, a prominent Soviet legal expert, began to grappled with the question of personal responsibility in times of war in the 1930’s. He formulated a statute he termed the “crime against peace’ which would later evolve into the widely recognized “crime of aggression.”


“So, it did not come out of the blue, but it was still a significant breakthrough. And I would call it one of the major moments of norm crystallization,” explains German law professor Klaus Kress.


The Charter of the International Military Tribunal – issued on Aug. 8 1945, recognized criminal responsibility for waging an aggressive war, which became the core crime at the Nuremberg Trials.  Trainin legal work formalized a significant change in the legal framework of the laws of war.


Trainin’s statute criminalized aggression, defined individual criminal responsibility, while stripping away two tradition defenses, explains Kelly.


“The first defense is sovereign immunity, right? I’m the foreign minister, I have sovereign immunity. So, it strips away sovereign immunity.” In addition, explained Kelly, it strips away the “I was just following orders” defense.


“That leaves them vulnerable to criminal jurisdiction. So, Nuremberg and Tokyo are really huge in this regard,” he said referring to the post-WWII tribunals.


Fast forward to the present and more than a year after the Russian assault on Ukraine the bold promises of accountability and the defense of international law have yet to be translated into a concrete plan. At the Nuremberg Academy, Kress urged the international community to revive the crime of aggression. He gave his remarks in the historic court room 600 where the crime of aggression was tried for the first time in history.


“Countless losses have been inflicted upon Ukrainians by the Russian aggressor and none of those are war crimes, crimes against humanity of genocide,” said Kress. Under the law of armed conflict, he pointed out, “unavoidable, non-excessive civilian death or injury” is acceptable as a result of direct attacks on military object.


The crime of aggression changes legal responsibilities, Kress explained.


“Only by prosecuting the crime of aggression can Russia’s leadership be held criminally responsible for that vast part of the war’s violence. The question is then: How has it come that despite this powerful Nuremberg legacy on crimes against peace, we are left today with a glaring gap in the international legal architecture concerning the crime of aggression”




At the Nuremberg Tribunal, the WWII alliance, in particular Washington, Paris, London and Moscow, were united in a desire to punish the surviving German leadership for Hitler’s war of expansion. However, five decades later, those powers were not prepared to provide a permanent international court with jurisdiction over state-on-state aggression. In the post-cold war era, western allies were wary of including the crime of aggression, a statute that could potentially limit political and military flexibility.


When negotiations for the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC) commenced, defining the crime of aggression was so contentious the negotiations were postponed.


By 2010, the crime of aggression was incorporated into the ICC statutes, however, a majority of court members initially chose not to ratify it. The statute only took effect in 2018 after powerful court members successfully advocated for significant limits to the court’s jurisdiction.


Remarkably, the United States played a pivotal role in the establishment of the ICC in 1998, flexed its considerable muscle in the qualifications and revisions of the crime of aggression, and then declined to join the court, primarily due to objections over the court’s jurisdiction to prosecute U.S. politicians or military personnel.


Hostility to the court ebbed in the Obama administration but reached a peak during the Trump administration, and still remains potent within the U.S. Department of Defense. The Biden administration is strongly supporting the ICC’s role on Ukraine with the support of Congress. However, the DOD continues to block cooperation with the ICC despite legislation passed in December 2022 instructing U.S. agencies to assist on issues connected to Ukraine.


A Yale study on Russia’s kidnapping of Ukrainian children in collaboration with the U.S. State Department’s Crisis Observatory has yet to be sent to the ICC due to Pentagon objections.


Russia also did not become a member of the ICC, nor did Ukraine, but following Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, Kyiv accepted ICC jurisdiction in 2014 without formally joining the court. The case languished for lack of budget then was revived soon after the Russian invasion as European capitals pledged support. 14 European Union countries have also launched investigations, including Germany.


“Then comes the big million-dollar question,” says Michael Kelly, “What are we going to do about war crimes and aggression in Ukraine?” It’s now or never, he says, but cautions that U.S. reservations, especially at the U.S. Department of Defense remain strong. There is also a political reservation to the so-called leadership crime, he says, “We are not willing to embrace the ‘full enchilada’ of watching a nuclear-powered permanent member of the UN Security Council be subject to an international tribunal”


International law experts and human rights activists are also divided on support for Ukraine’s bid to convene an international war crimes tribunal. Many would prefer to see the ICC strengthened and there are proposals to reopen negotiations to widen ICC jurisdiction for the crime of aggression.


“It’s about a long-term vision of international criminal justice,’ says Wolfgang Kaleck, a leading human rights lawyer and the director of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) in Berlin. “This vision has been harmed by the UK and the US in a substantial way,” he says referring the U.S. and British negotiators who diluted the ICC’s jurisdiction. “They are only in favor of international criminal justice when it’s in their interest.”


Kaleck points to the 2003 Iraq war, which was not a war of self-defense, nor sanctioned by the United Nations. The legality of the war has been widely debated.


“You cannot let the EU, the US, and the UK go impugned for the Iraq war and then set up a tribunal for aggression,” says Kaleck. He prefers pursuing an amendment to the ICC statute expanding jurisdiction, but that could be a long and messy path.




Even so, if the world is having “a Ukraine moment,” then the International Criminal Court is having a revival due to Ukraine. Karim Khan, a British barrister, elected to lead the court in 2021 pledged to improve the record of the court and revitalize a struggling institution.


“The International Criminal Court has a legitimacy problem”, says Phillipe Sands. In twenty years of operations, “every single person who’s been indicted before the ICC is Black and African. And Blacks and Africans don’t have a monopoly on international crime. “


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a test for the ICC’s chief prosecutor, two years into a nine-year term.


In March, 2023, Khan, known for his assertiveness both in the courtroom and the political arena, made a significant move announcing the ICC had issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin and a senior Kremlin official, Maria Lvova-Belova. The warrants were issued in connection with their alleged involvement in the deportation of Ukrainian children.


Citing the Rome Statutes, Khan argued that Putin and Lvova-Belova “bear criminal responsibility for the unlawful deportation and transfer of Ukrainian children from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation.”


In a statement announcing the sealed indictment, Khan alleged: “These acts, amongst others, demonstrate an intention to permanently remove these children from their own country. At the time of these deportations, the Ukrainian children were protected persons under the Fourth Geneva Convention”

While Russia is not a party to the Rome Statue that established the ICC, the court does have jurisdiction over war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide committed in Ukraine based on Ukraine’s 2014 official complaints which accepted the Court’s jurisdiction.


By targeting Putin, himself, Khan’s approach showcased the ICC’s capability to hold high-ranking officials accountable for crimes committed in Ukraine even with the Court’s limited jurisdiction.


Khan’s strategy is also appears aimed to proactively address the growing demands to create a separate international war crimes tribunal for the crime of aggression which he views as “self-indulgent” and “a time-consuming distraction” that, he says, could fragment the pursuit of justice.


But Khan’s indictment announcement has done nothing to dampen the debate. Ukraine’s leadership hailed the work of the ICC but pressed for more. In a surprise trip to The Hague in early May Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy called again for a “true, full-fledged tribunal,” a “Nuremberg” to guarantee the “non-repetition” of this crime.


Ukraine urges a vote at the United Nation General Assembly, arguing that it would confer greater legitimacy and international impact, and at the same time avoid conflicts with Ukraine’s national constitution. Article 125 states: “The establishment of extraordinary and special courts shall not be permitted.”


“Impunity is the key that opens the door to aggression,” Mr. Zelenskyy said. “If you look at any war, any war of aggression in the history, they all have one thing in common: The perpetrators of the war didn’t believe they would have to stand to answer for what they did.


For Zelenskyy and many Ukrainians, the crime of aggression becomes all important as the nation’s very existence is threatened.  “In memory of all those whose lives were taken by Russia, by its terror,” he proclaimed, “Only one Russian crime led to all of these crimes. This is the crime of aggression. The start of evil and the primary crime. And that can only be enforced by the Tribunal”


Ukraine’s partners in Eastern Europe offered immediate support, including the Baltic states, Poland and the Czech Republic. In addition, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the European Parliament passed resolutions of support for an international tribunal. The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyden, stepped up calls for a special tribunal as has an unexpected backer, the French government.


In contrast, the nations in the so-called Global South have reservations. On the one-year anniversary of the invasion, the U.N General Assembly voted overwhelming in favor of a resolution calling for the end to the war and a demand that Russia leave Ukrainian territory.


However, 32 of the 180 voting states abstained—including African countries and influential powers such as India and South Africa.


Non-Western states appear willing to condemn Moscow’s aggression in general terms, but so far, seem less willing to back more concrete punishments for Russia. In a recent vote, a mild paragraph about accountability got push-back, including from Nigeria, a major African country that has been broadly supportive of Ukraine.


With their own national interests, precarious economies in a post-COVID era, and dependence on aid from Russia and China, few are eager to choose between great powers in a war that has little to do with their concerns and is thousands of miles away.


“As somebody who has working in Africa for the last 30 years, I’m just so aware of this perception that international justice kicks in against enemies and outcasts,” says former war crimes prosecutor Reed Broody about the prospect of a positive vote at the General Assembly.


“Is it more important to prosecute Putin for aggression in Ukraine? Certainly, but at the cost of consecrating the idea that there is one justice for the West and there is another justice for enemies of the West?” says Broody.


It is a pressing question acknowledged by Ambassador Van Schaack in her address at the Pilecki Institute in Berlin.


“We have to acknowledge that sense of selective justice”, she told the audience and described the dilemma as a failure of the international community. “We have to find ways to build a system that will be more universal, so that when other states are experiencing terrible atrocities, the international community responds to the same degree that it has in this particular conflict.”


“What you see is building the airplane as they are flying it,” says Michael Kelly describing the efforts to find a justice venue for Ukraine, “And then as it continues flying, they keep rebuilding it”


Russia has been courting African countries for years. China regularly sends envoys, now Ukraine has stepped up outreach to the Global South. Ukraine’s top diplomat, Dmytro Kuleba made a second trip to Africa this spring. Zelenskyy’s attended an Arab League meeting and then the Group of 7 summit in Japan.


European diplomats from countries that back an international tribunal urge a concentrated Western lobbying campaign to change votes. More skeptical UN observers predict the proposal might get an underwhelming 60 votes or no more than 90 votes in the General Assembly.


Those votes, says Stephen Rapp, a former U.S. ambassador for war crimes, “can’t be solely European. They have got to have more. They can’t have the whole global south abstaining. You need to have some affirmative votes from the Global South.”


With a positive U.N General Assembly vote far from certain, proponents of an international war crime tribunal point out the costs.


“My major concern is that in five years’ time, we find ourselves with a panoply of criminal proceedings for war crimes and crimes against humanity against low grade Russians being caught. And the main people, the top table are off the hook completely, says international legal expert Phillipe Sands, “And we point to these sorts of crappy little trials, as indicating the justice is done, when in fact, they show the very opposite. Manifest injustice is being done because the top people who are responsible for this actually get off the hook.”



How housing can divide a community

by Kieran Murphy

House of Isabel, a newly opened aparment complex has already sparked controversy. The Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba (IRCOM) opened the apartment block a year ago. The location in the Centennial neighborhood of Winnipeg has pitteded residents and indigenous people against each other.

Dorota Blumczyńska, Executive Director of IRCOM, is painfully aware both of Canada’s colonial history and of the tensions between her organization and the local community. In the past year, IRCOM and its tenants have been victims of crimes including vandalism, theft, burglary, and assault. In August, a newcomer was attacked with pepper spray and had to be taken to the hospital.

IRCOM’s central mission is to provide transitional housing and support to low-income newcomer families with children. Families are eligible to receive IRCOM support if they have been in Canada for less than six months, and are eligible to stay for up to three years. Though IRCOM is open to all immigrants, but currently serves primarily serves refugees.  

The population of the Centennial neighborhood is prodomenetaly indigenous people. It is a poor community with a robbery rate higher than the national average and median income that is a third of Winnipeg’s. Ingdoeus tenena tpreiously lived in the appartment bloock that now houses refugeesm which has stirred some resentment in the community.

Dorota Blumczyńska recognized this problem and her stratagey has been to make a conscious efforts to foster solidarity between newcomers and indigenous people, both of which she says have experiensed oppression in Canada and abroad.

Blumczyńska says every event at IRCOM starts with a territorial acknowledgement that recognizes the native claim to the land. On World Refugee Day, newcomers wrote letters to Prime Minister Trudeau about increasing funding for indigenous child welfare.

 Educating newcomers about indigenous people is important in Blumczyńska’s eye’s not just because of tensions from the outside, but because many have never heard of the indigenous people of Canada, and those who have generally do not have positive impressions. IRCOM has introduced activities that recongized the mutual oppression of both communties.


A Safer Space for LGBT Refugees

By Matt Chang

The Rainbow Resource Centre has its roots as a student grassroots group in the 1970s, but now has extended its work to helping a diverse array of people in need of welcome in Manitoba. Newcomers are a part of this diverse group, which includes refugees and immigrants, as well as international students and even Canadians who may be new to the area. The New Pride of Winnipeg, a social support group, also offers a place where migrants can practice their English and absorb the local culture through movie nights and food.

For the newly arrived LGBT refugees, the welcome may not be as warm in some ethnic communities of Winnipeg, said Sarah Paquin, a counsellor and social worker at the Rainbow Resource Centre. “There is so much to lose, in terms of support,” said Paquin, a counsellor and social worker at the Centre. She said everything from food and housing to emotional support is tied to these communities, so the risk of coming out is not worth it to the majority of newcomers.

Dealing with LGBT refugee claimants has been a relatively new process in Manitoba. Historically, many refugees would come to the country as a group, government-assisted refugees, not self-identified as LGBT. Now, more refugee claimants are crossing the border in small groups or alone. The number of refugee claimants who list LGBT persecution as reason for fleeing has spiked from around 6 to 60 in the past year. Mike Tutthill, the Executive Director, said the official refugee system was not prepared for this increase in number, and has consequently failed them. He said there is a “complete lack of awareness” in legal and resettlement agencies as well as the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB); he and Paquin both said the process is marred by homophobia and heterosexism, even if unwitting. One example Tutthill gave was when a refugee claimant was told by their lawyers to “wear their gayest outfit” when making claims at the refugee board, subscribing to generalized stereotypes.

The lack of sensitivity and prejudice is troubling said Tutthill and Paquin, but they are optimistic that the adoption of new LGBT refugee guidelines will make this a better process for all. Tutthill said that, with this new guideline, refugee officials can be held accountable. Paquin believes the Rainbow Resource Centre’s activism will lead to a safer environment for LGBT refugees.

The little UN of Winnipeg

By Ferdose Idris 

As I look around the multipurpose room set for lunch, I notice food from all around the world. Rita Chahal laughs, “We sometimes call our lunch room the United Nations. Chahal is the Executive Director of Welcome Place, formally know as Manitoba interfaith Immigration Council, which has provided resettlement assistance to government sponsored refugees and refugee claimants for the last 70 years. “Government sponsored refugees are our bread-and-butter” said Rita. They offer services from the moment they arrive at the airport until they become Canadian citizens. Welcome place is unique, because caseworkers can continue on with the same client from start to finish.

Over 90% of the staff at Welcome Place are refugees themselves. This is because language knowledge and cultural competency are their top priorities when hiring said Marta Kalita, the Director of Settlement Services. “We want people who understand what it means to be a refugee” because they understands the resettlement process making them suited to do this work.

“They also act as role models” for incoming refugees and gives newcomers hope that they can be as successful. Fetheya Abdela is an example. Fetheya and her family immigrated to Canada as refugees in the late 1980s. Today she works as a settlement councilor and provides services including life lessons– some have never seen a washing machine or microwave before–making sure their children go to school.

“It’s really competitive to work here” said Reem Hailemolokot a former refugee from Eritrea and settlement counselor at Welcome Place. “We had over 40 applicants for the receptionist position in just 2 days…everyone wants to work here” said Reem. As I spoke to staff and volunteers alike, all of them shared similar sentiments, that this place and doing this type of work has enriched them. Laura Antymniuk is one of these volunteer staff. As a first year law student at the University of Manitoba, this has been her first clinical experience working with clients. There are about 20 law students volunteering with Welcome Place. They receive credit for the work and Antymniuk feels it has been an answer to her anxiety and stress. In the grand scheme of things, “When you hear their stories…it helps you situate your experiences” it also has “made me more politically aware about what’s going on around the world as well as Canadian politics at home”.

Fetheya Abdela a Settlement Counselor at Welcome Place, working in her office.

Another Story

by Maddy Pauchet

Yahya Samatar’s red sweater is zipped up to his neck, and he stands in a corner of the room, swarmed by journalism students who bombard him with questions. “Why did you leave your home?” “How did you get to Winnipeg?” “Did you come straight from Somalia?”

To each question, he gives a shy smile and answers, “that’s another story.” In Somalia Samatar worked as a human rights activist and journalist. There, he was arrested three times, and finally released only on the condition that he would leave the country.

Karin Gordon, the executive director of settlement for Hospitality House Refugee Ministry, explains that the Somali Police Force operates on a bounty system. “They are paid $250 for each person that they jail.”

Rather than face Somalia’s corrupt political system, Samatar fled. He left behind his three children and his wife, who he did not know was pregnant with his fourth child. He spent three months in Brazil before coming to the United States, where he was arrested and detained for nearly eight months while his refugee claim was processed—and eventually, denied. He was released in Louisiana, and a Somali friend resettled in Ohio drove down to pick him up. Samatar hid from the United States police, but though his friend tried to convince him to stay in Ohio, he refused to live in a place where he could not work. Instead, he chose to cross the Canadian border and seek asylum in Manitoba.

His friend drove him past Minneapolis, and dropped him off a few hours walking distance from the Canadian border. “I didn’t have smugglers,” says Samatar, who had to make the journey alone carrying only a backpack with his meager possessions: some clothes, food, and pictures of his family. According to him, other asylum-seekers coming across the Canadian border pay anywhere between $200-$1000 CAD to human traffickers who guide them through the prairies.

Without assistance, Samatar did not know what to expect or what to look for, and he lost his way. “I had heard of Canada, but never of Manitoba.” It was an early August morning, but still cold. Samatar came upon a river—and without knowing exactly what was on the other side, he stripped down and crossed it.

A Canadian Post driver found him shivering in his underwear on the side of a road—on the Canadian side of the border. He offered him a fleece and a ride to the police station, where an extra pair of uniform pants was unearthed—“so by the time I got him, he was decent,” laughs Gordon, who drove down from Winnipeg to pick him up.

With the support of Hospitality House, Samatar filed an asylum claim in Canada, which was approved. He hopes to bring his family over—their claim has been accepted as well, and they are only waiting on the paperwork. Samatar says that they are safe in Ethiopia, and though he has never met his youngest son Adnan, they Skype regularly.

Samatar now works as a fundraising consultant in Winnipeg—and according to Gordon, “You might be hearing from him—he set up a GoFundMe to save up for their airfare.”

Yahya Samatar speaks to a Princeton journalism class

Martha Stewart for Refugees

by Francesca Billington

“I love Martha Stewart so I buy Martha Stewart comforters.” Rita Chahal flips over the plastic package–a blue and green polka dotted comforter inside–to check the label. “Yes! This is Martha Stewart.” Chahal is the Executive Director of the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council in Winnipeg. We’re standing next to bunk beds in a two-bedroom apartment on third floor of Welcome Place, a temporary home for government sponsored refugees before they find permanent housing in the city. In the kitchen, a neat stack of new dishware from Ikea and a package of matching pots and pans are stacked on the counter. These apartments are for government-sponsored refugees but lately asylum seekers, refugees who are applying for a claim, have been housed here too, though they are not funded by the Canadian government. The MIIC fundraises its own money to assist them.

Downstairs on the second floor, two law students from the University of Manitoba sit in office chairs beside asylum claimants. Among them are Abraham Gebreyohannes and Abraham Bebrezhabiher, friends who met in a Florida detention center earlier this year. Gebreyohannes came to Canada in August as an asylum claimant and was granted refugee status by the government. He speaks English and now lives in Winnipeg. He came back to Welcome Place to help Bebrezhabiher, who crossed the U.S./ Canada border a few days ago. Bebrezhabiher is quiet and looks down often. He can’t speak very much English, so his friend translates for me; that’s why Gebreyohannes is here today—to translate his friend’s story into English for his refugee claim.

Bebrezhabiher left Eretria in 2008 and spent years in the U.S, stuck in detention centers in Florida, Georgia, and New Mexico, even after receiving news that his claim had been rejected. He tried starving himself once in Georgia for seven days, hoping he would be let free. But he was sent back to the detention center in Florida instead. Bebrezhabiher was released and made the trip to Emerson in October, but unlike his friend, Bebrezhabiher didn’t get back any of the paperwork he filled out in the U.S.—including his narrative, written in English. His friend holds up a journal with three pages filled with neat Tigrinya written in black ink. Gebreyohannes sits in between Bebrezhabiher and Segen Andemariam, a law student who is typing up the story on a Word document. She’s been working at Welcome Place for a few weeks and says most of her clients so far have come in with something written down—often the claims that were rejected in the U.S. In this case, she is translating a story into English, adding extra details from Bebrezhabiher’s experiences living in detention centers across the United States. They keep working, back and forth, to add the dates and events and emotions that make up Bebrezhabiher’s life to a document that could determine whether he can one day live like his friend.



Lessons for refugees include the plight of Indigenous people

By Rose Gilbert

When the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba (IRCOM) opened in a predominantly indigenous neighborhood in 2016, it created tension between Canada’s oldest and newest residents.

“We essentially came as settlers,” said Dorota Blumczynska, the IRCOM Executive Director. She explained that before IRCOM moved in, the apartment building housed local indigenous families. IRCOM received fourteen million dollars in government funding to renovate the building to house immigrants and refugees.

For many local residents, the shiny new IRCOM facility seemed to prove that the government was overlooking their community’s problems in order to take care of the newcomers. IRCOM’s mandate does not extend to providing services (like subsidized housing, childcare, money-managing, and job search help) to the local indigenous population, which adds to their hostility. Blumczynska said this resentment “leads to some tension and aggression,” and occasionally, violence. She said the building has been tagged, there have been minor thefts, and once a group of children pepper sprayed another in the building’s courtyard.

But this animosity is not one-sided. According to Blumczynska, most refugees and asylum-seekers don’t know much about indigenous people when they come to Canada. They are often exposed to negative and oversimplified portrayals. She said that IRCOM works to educate the newcomers about the indigenous people in Canada. The IRCOM website includes a guide for newcomers, which give a brief overview of the history of indigenous people in Canada, as well as a list of tribes, their languages, location, traditional community structure, spirituality, and traditions. Rayne Graff, IRCOM Volunteer & Community Services Executive Assistant, is a member of the Long Plain First Nation. In this role, Graff helps to build relationships and a sense of community between IRCOM residents and the surrounding neighborhood.

IRCOM isn’t the only one trying build bridges between these two communities. Rita Chahal, the Executive Director of the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council, said that the push to foster a sense of community between indigenous and refugee communities is a “sector-wide” effort amongst resettlement organizations.

Indigenous groups are also working to connect with refugees and refugee claimants. Karyn Pugliese, Executive Director at Canada’s only aboriginal television network, said there have been welcoming ceremonies organized by indigenous elders, while others have collected money and other donations for refugees. Pugliese stressed that every individual has a different opinion.

Crash-Course Canadians

By Allison Light

Around fifteen adults from all over the world sit in a bright classroom, eyes fixed on their teacher, Anita Sharma, who has spent the morning teaching them about navigating health issues and resources in their new home country. They’re at the Altered Minds Inc. Entry Program headquarters, where about 5,000 of the 12,000 yearly newcomers to Manitoba learn about assimilating to life in Canada, according to Executive Director Grace Eidse. This particular classroom holds the Express course, for immigrants with a solid grasp of English – they’ll go through the program in a week, while the English beginners will spend a month taking classes.

Sharma is explaining Canadian conventions on disciplining children, and how many parents may need to soften their parenting styles, even if corporeal punishment was habitual where they coming from. As she explains how teachers could report families if their children show signs of having been physically disciplined, a man pipes up from the back: “Back home, even if you’re caught by police, police will help you beat them again!” The whole room laughs – though they are from Pakistan, the Philippines, Israel, and elsewhere, most can relate.

“We are nobody to judge any culture,” says Sharma. “If your father disciplined you like that, hats off to him – that’s what he knew.”

The Entry Program was founded in 2005 as an orientation experience and English language boost for all newcomers to Canada, from wealthy economic immigrants to resettled refugees. Funded by the federal government, the organization offers classes in the morning, afternoon, and evening. The Express course spends one day each on Health, Employment, Laws, and Places to Go, with a final day for one-on-one private advising.

“Here’s the room where speakers come,” says Eidse, gesturing to a larger classroom. They get regular visitors from law enforcement, legal aid, employment agencies, and others. “Sometimes we’ve got 20, 25 languages going at once,” she says. “We had 194 interpreters here in September alone.”

Altered State Inc. employs about 20 people full-time, and many are former program participants. Faith Ugwu, who came from Nigeria with her husband, has only been in Canada for a year. She says the Entry Program is great at teaching the subtler social skills that new arrivals may not understand. For her, eye contact was the strangest adjustment. Back home, she says, “you don’t even look your dad or mom in the face.” Here, proper eye contact is essential for finding jobs and being polite in everyday scenarios. There are other, more tenuous, lines to be redrawn – household dynamics, for example. “For women it is completely different.” In Nigeria, Ugwu explains, men automatically were treated with a level of respect. But in Manitoba? “There’s no gender segregation.”

At the end of the lesson, Sharma writes a list on the board: 1.) Honeymoon 2.) Conflict 3.) Recovery 4.) Adaptation. These are the stages of cultural adaptation. She asks: “How many of you are in the conflict stage?” Various students shrug and noncommittally wave a hand. Vova Osmanov, a 23-year-old Russian coming from Israel, fully extends both arms into the air.

“I was a very open person,” he says, explaining that he liked being outside and hanging out with his friends. Here, the former has been made difficult by the cold, the latter by not knowing people his age yet. It feels like “you fall down with the face on the ground,” he says.

Sharma nods along. “It’s all part of the process”.

Going from “I love Canada” to “I love Canada, eh?”

by Nickolas Wu

“Today we’re going to learn about cultural adjustment,” said Anita Sharma. Sharma is a cultural adjustment teacher for the high English proficiency students at Altered Minds, Inc., a federally funded agency taking part in Canada’s ENTRY program for newly arrived immigrants. At Altered Minds, newly arrived migrants learn English, take courses on Canadian culture, and are walked through the acculturation process in Canada. The class is funded by the federal government, and a prominently displayed plaque in the front office proclaims as such to all visitors.

Chinese investment migrants, who have to prove a net worth of $1,600,000 CND and invest $800,000 CND in Canada, mingled with newly resettled refugees who had come with few possessions to learn about the adjustment process in Canada. Tian-en Zhou, a Chinese investment immigrant from Beijing, China, was still placed in the same classes as Tasir Al-frata, an Iraqi migrant who had fled Baghdad.

Sharma wrote a list of four items on the board: 1) honeymoon 2) conflict 3) recovery 4) adaptation. “What does this mean, class?” she asked. They demurred. “These are the stages of cultural adaptation,” she said. One of the students, Sergey Osmanov, a Russian migrant by way of Israel quipped, “so this is the process of going from ‘I love Canada’ to ‘I love Canada, eh?’”

Sharma’s class is a higher English level cultural adjustment class, but Altered Minds teaches the new immigrants everything from Canadian expectations of child rearing (“don’t beat your children”), employment prospects (“here’s how to write a resume and cover letter”), to something as seemingly simple as traffic laws (“drive on the right side of the road, not the left”).

Grace Eidse, the founder and CEO of Altered Minds, explained that the group’s founding in 2005 came from the need to educate newly arrived migrants in the ways of Canadian life. The name came from the idea that “we are transformed when we come together,” she said. At least half of the current staff of 20 people are immigrants themselves.

Altered Minds does teach children. That job is left to the Needs Centre, another nonprofit organization that provides similar services for children. But this bifurcation of services makes it difficult for families with children to attend classes says Eidse, “people can’t attend if they have children,” since there is nowhere to get child care.

Newly arrived migrants take a break from their classes.

“Sham” Meets Damascus

By Francesca Billington

Ahlam Dib bounces her 11-month year old daughter in her lap. Sham, Arabic for “Damascus”, smiles and points to her mother’s plate for more food. Sham was born in Altona, but her seven siblings—two sisters and three brothers—were born in Damascus and lived there with their parents until 2012.  Ahlam owned her own clothing store and managed a hotel while her husband raised sheep. But when “things started to get really bad” in Syria, Ahlam says, she and her family moved to Lebanon and filed for resettlement. In Lebanon, Ahlam started growing crops on a farm and worked other jobs so she could send her children to school. Then, one afternoon, Ahlam got a call that her family would leave for Canada in two days. Ahlam didn’t sleep her final two nights in Lebanon; she cleaned and shopped and packed suitcases—one 10-kilogram bag and one 2-kilogram bag for each family member. The bags were filled with clothes, spices, tea, coffee, bread. “Someone told me there would be no Hijab in Canada,” she said, so one suitcase she filled only with Hijab.

Ahlam remembers the day she flew to Canada. She lists the travel schedule to me: a nine-hour bus ride before a three-hour flight to Jordan, then a five-hour layover in Jordan until a 15-hour flight to Toronto. They slept for one night at an airport in Toronto before their final flight to Winnipeg the next day. She remembers being confused by the seating assignments on the plane. This is my family, this is my husband and we are sitting together, she told the flight attendants in Arabic. But the flight staff was not patient. When the plane landed and Ahlam saw snow piled on the ground, she thought she might cry.

Sometime in the middle of our conversation, Ahlam’s husband quietly takes Sham into his arms and brings her to another table across the room. Linda Loewen, an Altona resident who helped privately sponsor the family through Build a Village, said later that Ahlam’s husband’s English is not strong, and that he probably didn’t speak to us because of that. “Women tend to learn English faster than men,” she said. Loewen thinks this happens because Arabic men living in Canada socialize with each other more often than women do, so they practice English less.

Ahlam lights up when she tells us about stepping off the airport and seeing Loewen hold a welcome sign in Arabic. What sadness she felt seeing the snow moments before had dissolved. She now has a farm in Altona and sells her fruits and vegetables: zucchini, tomatoes, watermelon. She keeps getting calls from customers who want to buy ful—fava beans that aren’t typically grown in Canada. Some of her crops grow from seeds she brought from Damascus. Her husband herds sheep again. Ahlam’s husband brings Sham back to her mother and takes the car keys from his wife. Sham is still smiling and she wears a grey onesie with a fuzzy white animal on the front, which Ahlam points out to me. Linda says she thinks it’s a moose because of the antlers. But to Ahlam, it’s a sheep.

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