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A Very Big Story: Day 2 in Winnipeg

The Manitoba province is a land with a diverse, interesting population, and, most importantly, truly phenomenal food.

Our class experienced this firsthand on multiple occasions on our trip thus far, and today was no exception: we ate a lunch prepared and served by Syrian refugees, and it was one of the best meals I have ever eaten. The chicken wraps were a personal favorite. At my table, I got to talk with Dieundonne Mbarushimana, a refugee from Burundi, who spent hours telling his life story.

“I tell a good story,” Mbarushimana said. “I have a very big story.”

Mbarushimana spent almost a decade of his life in prison in Burundi. He also was involved in an accident there that paralyzed him and forced him to be bedridden for six years. After his injury, Mbarushimana sought to learn a craft he could do with only his hands. He became skilled at crocheting. He showed off some of his creations, including some crocheted carrots with smiley faces.

He also expressed that he grew immensely in his faith. He listens to Radio Maria, a radio program that allows him to hear Christian songs and scriptures in his own language.

“There are two ways in my life: crocheting and listening to Radio Maria,” Mbarushimana said. “If you are a new person in a new church, you cannot catch anything, but you can go home and listen to Radio Maria, and you hear.”

Despite all the tragedy he faced in the past, Mbarushimana told his story with a sense of wonder and a surprising sense of humor. He reminisced about being in prison and stealing guard’s underwear when the guard was in a shower and selling it to someone else for an amount of money equivalent to a nickel. He began to laugh so hard after that story he had to pause for a full minute, and I couldn’t help but laugh too.

Mbarushimana’s wasn’t the only big story we got to see and hear about today. We also got to learn more about the efforts of Ben Rempel and the Manitoba province to bring and accommodate more immigrants into the country.

After a long bus ride full of naps and some phenomenal and some questionable music choices, we also got the chance to visit Emerson, a small town on the Canadian border. We ended the day by heading to dinner at a pub with journalism students from Red River College in Winnipeg. We heard their thoughts on everything from Calvin and Hobbes to the physics of curling. It was a phenomenal experience.

However, I couldn’t get Mbarushimana’s story out of my mind. I thought about how proud he was to tell his story, in both its tragic and funny parts. One of my favorite parts of journalism is the personal stories, the many bizarre, tragic, or phenomenal events you get to hear. I look forward to more of these stories and am thankful for the people like Mbarushimana, a strong survivor, willing to put his story out into the world for anyone with an ear to hear and a chicken wrap to eat.

Thoughts on Collecting Stories

ALTONA, CANADA – Today I had a two-hour conversation with a Venezuelan man over a Syrian lunch in the middle of rural Canada. In Spanish.

Which is humorous because, for the record, I don’t really speak Spanish. In fact, it’s been four years since high school Spanish, so the conversation was a bit rough-going.

Jesús is a refugee claimant and newcomer to Canada. A skilled worker and intelligent man, Jesús was a hydroelectric engineer/manager in Venezuela, which he left with his wife a year or so ago in the midst of a crumbling economy and growing gang violence. Together, they traveled from Caracas to Maracaibo (an eight-hour drive) before flying to Mexico City and finally Canada.

At some point, we were talking about un camión – a truck (or as Jack, a fellow classmate from Britain, would say, a lorry). Jesús says he likes Canada – it’s tranquilo, peaceful. Jesús now prays his refugee claim will be accepted, which he optimistically says has an 80% chance of success. Jesús has got family here – of three daughters, at least one lives in the area, along with a couple of nietos, grandchildren. Jesús looks younger than his seventy-plus years. He shows off a photo of his 11-year-old granddaughter hanging upside-down from a tree limb. His voice is strained, tired, and a bit insistent as he remembers his life in Venezuela.

I think pain is something that comes across without words; some stories and some emotions transcend the technical syntax used to formally convey details. That’s not to say I don’t regret my lack of understanding. I wish I’d caught the details of Jesús’s story, and I hope his efforts weren’t lost on me. I think Jesús felt withdrawn amongst a sea of Arabic- and English-speaking lunch mates and may have appreciated having someone to converse with, and I appreciate his openness with me. But I worry that I’m not worthy of his story.

The thing is, Jesús has probably had to tell his story and relive his traumas dozens of times just to get into and stay in Canada, and he’s probably going to have to tell it a dozen times more before his refugee status is determined next May. And going into this conversation, I knew I wouldn’t understand enough to incorporate his story into my own writing. In a case like this (or ever, really), what gives a person the right to ask for anther’s story? Have I disrespected his story? How much do the details matter, or is the pain conveyed enough?

Yesterday we spoke to Summer, a transgender Syrian refugee at the Hospitality House in Winnipeg. Summer asked if and how we were there to help her. The truth is, we can’t help Summer, not even in the way that a trained journalist with a platform may have been able to lend her a voice. And yet she insisted on giving the name of the man who tortured her in prison and watched us write down that man’s name. But where will that information go? Surely these stories cannot be lost.

On a brighter note, here’s an unusually animated game of “sticks:”

Through the Lens: Photolog 1

WINNIPEG, CANADA – On Saturday, eleven Princeton students set off with professor and NPR journalist Deb Amos for their class “International News: Migration Reporting.” Follow their visual journey here.


Saturday, 27 October – Sunday, 28 October

Hungry students chow down on a late lunch at The Twist in Toronto Airport during a layover.  PC: Priya Ganatra

Happy to have (finally) arrived in Winnipeg! We began our travels in Princeton at 8 am to arrive nearly 10 hours later. PC: Priya Ganatra 

Students pass by the Canadian Museum for Human Rights on the way to The Forks. There, we enjoyed a hearty breakfast before conducting man-on-the-street interviews. PC: David Exume (left) and Priya Ganatra (center, right)

Photographic work (right) from Nadim Ado, a Yazidi artist-photographer who fled the civil war in Syria. This exhibition at the Prairie View School of Photography also displays hand-written poetry (left) from his wife Delshan Mohamed, who recently published her first collection. Follow Nadim on Insta and Twitter @NadimAdo or Delshan on Facebook @DilShan Anqele. PC: Jes Wright

Young members from the Sawa Theatre troop address the importance of artistic outlets and self-expression for young refugees. Sawa Theatre performs bilingual (Arabic/English) plays at the Gas Station Theatre in Winnipeg. Follow @sawatheatre or check out their website here PC: Priya Ganatra

Could you join the clean plate club? Our vegetarians sure did a number on this 4-person platter at Gohe Ethiopian Restaurant! Students enjoyed a feast with former refugee from Vietnam Tam Nguyen on Sunday night. PC: Priya Ganatra

Goodbye NJ Transit: Day 1 In Winnipeg

“We’ll give you a discount – five tickets for $10,” Joel Margolese, of WinNTrack, joked. WinNTrack, a club for model train enthusiasts, was raffling a train model at The Forks, Winnipeg – one ticket for two dollars.

The location couldn’t have been better. WinNTrack’s Larry Maltman explained that The Forks used to be a train storage center. He claimed that Winnipeg was an important transit center.

I was skeptical. The one railway we saw outside the Forks consistently screeched under the weight of the CN train. There was minimal visible transit.
Even Maltman, commented how few people there were at The Forks today. Despite long lines at Danny’s All Day Breakfast, where we ate, the shops were empty enough that we could speak to shopkeepers.

The Canadian Museum of Human Rights, by David Exumé

My classmate, Irma and I, first visited Two Rivers, where employee Terry Clark highlighted the local native sculptures for sale. At its sister store, The Forks Trading Company, 90% of the items are on consignment from small local companies like Bear Naked Wonders. Employee Dorothy MacClure explained it is a miracle product made from Black Bear Oil. The product sign described using fat from black bears as a “way of life locally for many years.”

We learned more at Teekca’s Aboriginal Boutique, which collects Native Indian items from all across North America. Bo, the shopkeeper, enjoys it when visitors who are not familiar with Indian Cultures “get their first education in the store.” She says that 60% of the items are handmade. The rest are manufactured because “people want to see native designs on a mug.” She points to a pair of moccasins with rubber soles. The moccasins sell because rubber soles keep feet warm on cement sidewalks. She mentioned how important it is to adapt to the present, but not lose the substance of the past.

After visiting The Forks, I felt that Winnipeg was like the moccasins – changing with the times, but not losing its historical culture.

We quickly crossed many streets (there were no cars to stop us) to visit Nadim Ado’s studio. Nadim is a Syrian photographer who relocated to Winnipeg with his wife. He is also a Yazidi, a religious minority that has been targeted by Islamist militants in Syria and Iraq.

Nadim’s eyes and cameras have captured stories of the Yazidis. He told us about the pain the Yazidis have faced, and how he feels in Canada. “Everything I did, I did on my own. I did four exhibitions on my own,” Nadim says. His wife shows the same self-initiative. She has written a poetry book in Arabic, which translates, to, “Goodbye Life as an Old Profession.” But while pursuing their dreams, they worry for family back home. “This is another kind of death every day,” Nadim says. He says that Facebook and his pictures don’t let him forget. His photographs are on public display at the Prairie View School of Photography.

It’s through art that people like Nadim make their impact on Winnipeg. That’s when I began to think. Winnipeg may not be a physical transit hub, but it could be a cultural one. I saw this when we talked to the Sawa theater group, which casts young newcomer refugees who pick up and showcase their acting skills in half-English, half-Arabic shows. I saw this when we ate dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant with Tam Nguyen, who recently published his book “A Lucky Man”. He came to the restaurant, hugged his friends, and told us how he tailored pants for Patrick Swayze in 24 hours. He’s been in Winnipeg for 38 years as a refugee from Vietnam.

I saw Winnipeg as a cultural transit hub when I met Omar. He left Somalia at age 6, studied in Egypt, and became a citizen of Canada. He came to the US and earned a degree in electronics while working at Dell. After being detained for months in Arizona, he walked back to Canada. Tomorrow he will start a job at a warehouse. He says that Winnipeg is a stop for him because he has nothing. Because American ICE agents took everything.

I learned that Winnipeg is a transit city. I saw the effects of people coming and leaving through culture, food, and history. I also realized something. I didn’t see any cars today because it is Sunday.

Blog Sunday, October 28, 2018 – Winnipeg, Canada

Today was packed! Overly packed with scrumptious food, heart stirring stories, and tremendous guest speakers among various organizations.

We started out our day at the Forks Market where our class decided on Danny’s Breakfast and Brunch. Everyone was stuffed because the proportions were very large. Ananya’s vegetable scramble looked entirely too delicious “It was amazing, but Stephen made it a 100 times better,” she says. Stephen rang up twelve separate orders and miraculously memorized each of them. We were shocked.

We were all required to do “man-on-the-street” interviews at Forks Market, which personally made me nervous because talking to strangers is hard. We all ventured off on our own separate ways with our journalism pads and pens in hand: some were in pairs and some went solo.

I was able to speak to Naomi, an employee of Coal and Canary, which is a home-made candle shop. She was very friendly and she asked me why I was in Canada. So, I was able to talk about our journalism class and how I was interested in afterschool programs for refugee children. She commented on how diverse and beautiful Canada is because of migrants. “I would not be able to recognize a refugee in passing from a person who has lived here all of their life. Canada welcomes refugees. Refugees and immigrants provide many skills that make this country better as a whole.” I was surprised that a Canadian would know so much about refugees and immigrants.

A Roundtable with the Sawa Theatre Troupe, by Deb Amos

After visiting the photo exhibition by Nadim Ado, a Syrian refugee, we headed to Fairmont Hotel to listen to the Sawa Theatre Troupe at a round table discussion. “When I heard we were seeing a theatre troupe, I was surprised to see such young voices expressing their desire to create a community,” said Amy, one of my classmates also on the trip. The founders emphasized the personal challenges they faced; “We don’t want the refugee children to be painting a narrative that requires audiences to feel sympathy. We don’t have to make people cry for us,” says the cofounder of Sawa, Montaser Al Jajeh. The refugee children have a lot more to offer and theater provides them with a blank canvass to express themselves. I was able to see the group laughing and having a good time. I could already tell that this was a group that was different from the narratives I had heard.

The most powerful moment today was talking to Abdi, a seventeen year old refugee, staying with Karen Gordon, a 72 year old retired nuclear scientist. “Karen is like a mother to me,” Abdi said. He told me how he used to mix up the words kitchen and chicken. He said that he once said, “I’m in the chicken,” which made us laugh. Abdi is a huge fan of soccer and this has helped him cope with all that he has been through. He attended the NEEDS after school program and told me how helpful and kind the staff and teachers were. He was able to take English classes. Abdi was full of life and hope, which was so encouraging to me. It was so inspiring to listen to his story.

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