Saturday, September 22, 2018

Cyprian Fernandes: The vanishing tribe: How Canada welcomed Goan refugees



Remember the burly, self-appointed African leader who gave himself a plethora of honorific titles, bedecked himself with an array of medals, and kept the severed head of an "enemy" as a prized trophy in his fridge?   Yes, he was also responsible for killing off thousands of his countrymen, including some of his well-educated Ministers who he saw as a threat to his grave educational deficiencies or to his brute power. Also, when Britain refused to pander to his wishes for financial aid, he got some naive Britishers to carry him on their shoulders in a parade, and embarrassed Britain by captioning the photo “White Man's Burden”!    In case you have forgotten, he was none other than the infamous Idi Amin of Uganda.

He is remembered for other atrocities too. In 1972, by means of Decree No.17 he summarily expelled some 60,000 Asian civil servants, businessmen and their families from Uganda.    These people had been there all their lives and well before Uganda gained independence from Britain in 1962.    Indeed, the civil servants, and many of their parents before them, were engaged by the British Government and continued to serve the African Government, loyally, after the British relinquished the Protectorate.   Internationally, it was recognised that this small Asian population was the backbone of the country in more ways than one.   Although less than half of 1% of the population of 15 million, they contributed about 70% of the annual revenue.    The post-expulsion chaos was palpable and swift.   The public purse was looted by the new custodians and the country's infrastructure slid into ruin.

But what about the obverse side of the coin?    The spotlight revealed the panic-stricken expellees scrambling to find a safe haven just about anywhere.    Homes, personal effects, cars and businesses were abandoned.    Or, army personnel and the locals simply helped themselves to anything they fancied, right in front of the bewildered owners.   Some Asians buried their valuables in the hope of going back some day to retrieve them.   It was common knowledge that outward bound refugees would be roughed up by the army and be relieved of all valuables, including funds.   Women were subjected to intrusive, body searches.   Uganda, which was a model of civil rectitude, and was described by Winston Churchill as the Pearl of Africa, had succumbed to the whims of a single ingrate.   Destiny had dealt the Asians a very cruel blow.   They scattered in all directions out of Uganda.

To their credit, the Government of Canada reacted in a very timely manner, agreed to accept

A significant number of the refugees, mobilised forces, and mounted an immediate rescue mission.   The key players of the day were Pierre Elliot Trudeau, the Prime Minister, Bryce Mackersy, and Minister for Immigration, and the Aga Khan, a personal friend of Trudeau's.     In Uganda, Roger St. Vincent was the Charge de Affaires for Canada.   The cause was purely humanitarian.    Logistics were soon in place and ‘planes were dispatched from Canada to pick up the hapless refugees from Entebbe airport, for direct flights back.   This was a precedent-setting chapter in Canada's history.    It was the first operation of its kind to rescue non-European refugees.

Elaborate reception and re-settlement plans were put in place, post-haste, by Canada.    In Toronto, a special Immigration kiosk was set up at the Toronto Dominion Centre, downtown.   Similar arrangements were made in Montreal.    Some 9,000 refugees ended up in Canada.

Winter clothing and boots, plus anything else needed to start from scratch, was provided or made available on a "help yourself" basis at a convenient depot.   People could literally have come with nothing but the shirt on their backs.   Everything else had been anticipated.   Based on regional employment needs, people were matched to jobs in cities where they had the best chance of being successfully absorbed, and were earmarked for those cities, Accommodation and school admissions were also arranged and monetary allowances provided until people were back on their feet in the workforce.

Employers welcomed the refugees with open arms and, in a matter of weeks; the refugees were weaned of Government handouts.    It was recognised that because of their Western orientation and English language skills, the refugees took to Canada like "ducks to water".  This was especially true of the Goans, who benefited from the lengthy Portuguese presence in their motherland since 1510, and who had thus become the first in the East to come under the New World order.

More importantly, Canada benefited too.   The refugees --- both, men and women --- came with an English education, exemplary work ethics, and years of valuable professional experience, that had not been acquired at Canada's expense.    Qualitatively, Canada had never before accepted a better group of refugees.    There was a strong perception of success in the endeavour and re-settlement process, shared by the refugees and Government.

Detached from their blighted past and their harrowing experiences, the Ugandans showed intestinal fortitude and dug in with renewed hope for  themselves and their children.    Many upgraded their academic qualifications if only for the mythical Canadian content.   Their quality of life kept getting better by the day and before long they were firmly on their feet and pulling their weight as full contributing citizens in the land of their adoption.    Nearly all bought homes as soon as they could scrape enough funds together to make a down-payment.     After all, they were used to a very comfortable lifestyle, with the added advantage of domestics, until they were rudely uprooted.

The refugees have reason to count their blessings in the comparative tranquility of their adoptive land, and to regard the Uganda "stopover" as a closed chapter in their lives. They are proud to be Canadian.

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