Flight and Freedom

Flight and Freedom

Stories of Escape to Canada

By Ratna Omidvar and Dana Wagner






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The global number of people currently displaced from their home country—more than 50 million—is higher than at any time since World War II. Yet in recent years Canada has deported, denied, and diverted countless refugees. Is Canada a safe haven for refugees or a closed door?

In Flight and Freedom, Ratna Omidvar and Dana Wagner present a collection of thirty astonishing interviews with refugees, their descendants, or their loved ones to document their extraordinary, and sometimes harrowing, journeys of flight. The stories span two centuries of refugee experiences in Canada: from the War of 1812—where an escaped slave and her infant daughter flee the United States to start a new life in Halifax—to the War in Afghanistan—where asylum seekers collide with state scrutiny and face the challenges of resettlement.


Omidvar and Wagner research and interview refugees who have fled to Canada from all over the world, gathering their stories into a poignant, beautiful book of hardship and hope… . an important read.

Publishers Weekly

The individual refugees whose stories are so poignantly told in Flight and Freedom arrived in Canada at different times, from different parts of the world, and often under very different circumstances, but taken together their stories serve to remind us that Canadian readiness to provide sanctuary to those under threat is not just a legal obligation. It is a measure of our collective humanity. We should not be found wanting.

– Harold Troper, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, and co-author of None is Too Many

A riveting collection of refugee experiences.

– Radio Canada International

Flight and Freedom is an excellent book that benefits from the years of expertise of its co-writers and contributors. The 30 stories, which span two centuries and 25 countries of origin, are compellingly told, partly because they are extraordinary stories, but also due to the compassion and clarity brought to them by its curators.


This is a remarkable book, a strong reminder that no one chooses to be a refugee. Each individual story is a quest to reach safety and freedom, and shines a revealing light on the incredible courage and perseverance of refugees. The distinct horrors of refugees’ flights and loss, combined with the hopes for a better future, humble the reader and bring out an inner desire to help and do more to alleviate the plights of refugees. Flight and Freedom will make people understand why refugees need our help.

– Furio De Angelis, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees representative in Canada

Flight and Freedom presents a vivid picture of Canada as seen by the refugees who have found a new home here. You’ll see your country anew, when you read their tales, but you will also ask yourself: would they still get in today? This wonderful book is both a hymn of praise to a great tradition of Canadian generosity and a quietly scathing critique of how we have let this tradition decay. It’s a celebration, but also a call to action.

– Michael Ignatieff,  Shorenstein Center, Harvard Kennedy School

So many emotions tumble out after reading this rich collection of accounts of the suffering, determination, and resilience that is the refugee journey. These awe-inspiring journeys begin at different times and from places around the world, and they all end in Canada. This book is a very special reminder of the generosity and diversity of Canada. It is also a timely and urgent call to action to turn back the recent refugee laws and policies that have focused instead on restrictions and punishment.

– Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada

A timely and well-needed counterpart to much of the rhetoric around refugees, highlighting the remarkable personal stories of thirty refugees who have contributed and continue to contribute to Canada. These stories make a compelling case for a more generous approach, reminding us of the potential cost of more restrictive approaches.

– Andrew Griffith, former Director General of Citizenship and Multiculturalism, Government of Canada

It is a privilege to learn, through these moving personal stories, both about people who helped build Canada into one of the world’s most welcoming societies and the deliberate policies that made that possible. This book is also an important warning, however, that we not take these people and policies for granted and that vigilance is required to ensure Canada remains a country people in need can call home.

– Alison Loat, co-founder of Samara Canada

Giving migrants a voice, thus acknowledging their individuality, is the first step towards helping them fight for their rights and to facilitate their access to justice. We need to transform our own perceptions of migration, rejecting nationalist populist fantasies, myths, threats, and stereotypes. “They” do not bring unemployment, illnesses, or criminality with them. The voices of Randy, Tarun, Humaira, Sabreen, and the other migrants in Flight and Freedom should help us to find the sensitivity necessary to appreciate the traumatic choices each of them had to make, to be “in awe of their strength,” and to recognise their individual displacement as a dignity-seeking journey.

– François Crépeau, Faculty of Law, McGill University, and United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants

These powerful stories show how Canadian society has benefitted from our county’s generosity towards those fleeing “climates of terror”. To me this is the essence of Toronto. For generations, that spirit of reaching out to refugees and the exceptional contributions they make have combined to shape our city making it the envy of the world. We must never stop.

– Barbara Hall, former Mayor of Toronto

We can be indifferent until we see the individual faces of the families and the children. We have no choice but to engage when we hear their stories. This is a unique compilation of the stories of thirty individual refugees who escaped to Canada in recent years … a must-read for anyone with a deep interest in refugees generally and for Canadians who are coming to understand the significant contribution of refugees to our diverse society. These stories are a key to understanding what makes modern Canada great.

– The Hon. Ron Atkey,  former Minister of Immigration, Government of Canada, responsible for the program for 60,000 Vietnamese refugees

These stories illustrate how even democratic states are not able to protect those in danger.

Toronto Star

Ask almost any Canadian “how did your family get here?” and you will hear an extraordinary tale – very often a tale of flight from a faraway conflict. We are, to a large extent, a nation of former refugees. Ratna Omidvar and Dana Wagner have looked beyond the statistics and the political crises to reveal the human texture of the refugee experience at the heart of Canada. At a moment when refugees are too often seen as an abstract threat, this book reveals them, in moving detail, as our neighbours, doctors, leaders, professors, business owners, and colleagues: the people who, when permitted to settle in Canada, become essential to the fabric and life of the country.

– Doug Saunders, author of Arrival City and The Myth of the Muslim Tide

Every one of the 30 Canadians portrayed enrich, inspire and engage‎ in a way that reflects their courage, honesty and profound humanity; what and where they escaped to come here is part of who they were and are. And what they were and are makes Canada a better, richer, more humane and robust human community. No book tells the modern story of Canada with more texture, honesty or poignance - a must read!

– Hugh Segal, fifth Master of Massey College

This is a book that must be read to understand that no matter how different the circumstances or reasons for the need to escape, refugees share remarkable resilience and strength, and have made enormous contributions to our country. Each story makes the reader both humble and proud to be Canadian. May our doors continue to be open to refugees for the benefit of us all!

– Naomi Alboim, School of Policy Studies, Queen’s University

In Flight and Freedom, Ratna Omidvar and Dana Wagner give a human voice to what has become a political issue. An issue that has been lost in a barrage of incomprehensible statistics and photos of faceless crowds crammed into boats. They weave together a narrative of the common themes faced by many refugees. But the authors still maintain the distinctiveness and uniqueness of each individual’s experience. …Canadians are struggling to decide how best to respond to the plight of refugees. Flight and Freedom is an invaluable resource to assist us in coming to an informed decision.

– Kathryn Teeluck, The Catalyst


Ratna Omidvar
Alan Broadbent
Who Is a Refugee?
Chapter 1 Adeline Oliver, United States
Chapter 2 Mampre Shirinian, Ottoman Empire (Turkey)
Chapter 3 Loly Rico, El Salvador
Chapter 4 Ken (Khanh) Do, Vietnam
Chapter 5 Hodan Ali, Somalia
Chapter 6 Claudio Durán, Chile
Chapter 7 Rabbi Erwin Schild, Germany
Chapter 8 Randy Singh, Guyana
Chapter 9 Marguerite Nyandwi, Burundi
Chapter 10 Andrew Hidi, Hungary
Chapter 11 Sorpong Peou, Cambodia
Chapter 12 Tarun, Sri Lanka
Chapter 13 Yodit Negusse, Ethiopia
Chapter 14 Chai Bouphaphanh, Laos
Chapter 15 Zafar Iravan, Iran
Chapter 16 Samnang Eam, Cambodia
Chapter 17 Marko, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Chapter 18 Iren Hessami Koltermann, Iran
Chapter 19 Anwar Arkani, Myanmar
Chapter 20 Elvis, Namibia
Chapter 21 Humaira, Afghanistan
Chapter 22 Joseph, Sierra Leone
Chapter 23 Christine, Rwanda
Chapter 24 Mie Tha Lah, Myanmar
Chapter 25 Max Farber, Poland
Chapter 26 Shabnam, Afghanistan
Chapter 27 Robi Botos, Hungary
Chapter 28 Karim Teja, Uganda
Chapter 29 Avtar Sandhu, India
Chapter 30 Sabreen, Israel
Then and Now: Would They Get In Today?
Peter Showler