Two sponsor moms from Vancouver and birth mom from Ethiopia on hand for ceremony.Teklemichael Abebe Sahlemariam arrived in Canada as a refugee nine years ago.
Last week, he was called to the Ontario bar.
I toasted him with his three moms during a celebratory lunch after the ceremony.
“When that woman in the robe talked about how it’s been a long road for many people. My thought was, ‘You have no idea how long it’s been’,” said Jean McTavish, one of Sahlemariam’s adoptive mothers.
“I felt I was being born again,” his birth mother, Seble Lemlem Fantabil, said in Amharic, breaking into tears again. She arrived at Pearson International two days before the ceremony. It was the first time she’d seen her son since he fled Ethiopia 13 years ago.
“I cannot believe I am here, alive, to witness this.”
What a special meal!
Sahlemariam’s story is a brochure for Canada’s refugee system, before it turned suspicious and stingy.
Listening to it over lunch, I was reminded of the lesson I try to teach my children: that by sharing, you receive more.
Sahlemariam became a refugee because of his politics. In 2001, he was the president of Addis Abbaba University’s student union and an outspoken champion of academic freedom and human rights. The repressive government cracked down on the student activities — shutting newspapers, breaking up meetings, detaining ringleaders, including Sahlemariam. When students across the country rose up in protest, police opened fire, killing 41 people.
Sahlemariam fled south over the Kenyan border and into the crowded Kakuma refugee camp.
Four years later, the congregation at Vancouver’s Dunbar Heights United Church picked him from a list of potential refugees. They committed to foster him — financially and emotionally — for a year.
“There were more than 10 people at the airport waiting for me, with a big sign that said ‘Welcome to Canada,’ ” remembered Sahlemariam. “It was uplifting. Then, when I was taken to Jean’s house, I saw the fridge full of food, the bedroom and the bed sheets. I couldn’t believe I’d be sleeping on that bed.”
McTavish and another woman, Maggie Hosgood, would become Sahlemariam’s “Canadian mothers.” They housed him, helped him write his university papers, invited him to Thanksgiving dinners, tacked his framed graduation photos on their walls, sent him for haircuts.
“His first day in Canada, he said to me ‘Please take me downtown. I’m getting trained to be a security guard,’ ” says Hosgood, a retired teacher and speech pathologist. She first helped him get his social security number. Then, he was off: office cleaner, security guard, shelter staff by night, university student by day.
“He called me to say he’d enrolled in women’s studies, and he would need some help,” Hosgood said. “I thought, ‘How brave and open-minded.’ ”
Two years later, he started law school at the University of British Columbia.
“He was sleeping four hours a day,” said McTavish, a retired teacher. “He never wasted a minute. He lost four years of his life in that refugee camp, and he’s been making up for it ever since.”
He graduated, continued onto a master’s degree, then a job at an Ethiopian satellite television station in Washington, followed by an articling position with a Mississauga firm specializing in immigration and work as a court interpreter.
If only my children are so driven and passionate!
Sahlemariam, now 37, credits his success to his Canadian mothers.
“When I think of Canada, they come to my mind,” he said.
That is us at our best — kind, generous, open-minded. Sadly, we are increasingly at our worst.
As Peter Goodspeed points out, Canada now accepts fewer refugees than we have in two decades. We are more focused on blocking “bogus refugee claims” and saving money.
We lose, too, not only because we are stuck with our own cold, miserable selves. Who knows how many Sahlemariams weren’t permitted to come to Canada last year?
Once his mother returns to Ethiopia, he will start work as a lawyer at that Mississauga firm. In the long run, Sahlemariam wants to work in international human rights.
His mothers just want him to be happy, healthy and fulfilled. And one more thing, they add near the end of the meal.
“We’d like to see some children at some point,” Hosgood ventured. Hearing that, translated into Amharic, Fantabil nodded and slapped the table repeatedly.
“I’m not his mother anymore,” she said triumphantly. “They are his moms!”