Frederick Wannabe Mwenengabo. Photo by Alexander Corbett

‘LUGGAGE YOU CANNOT SEE’

BY ALEXANDER CORBETT

Frederick Wangabo Mwenengabo was 34 when he was granted asylum to move to Fredericton, New Brunswick. He felt great relief, but still carried a great burden.

“When you see a refugee come, there is something plus to luggage they bring,” he says. “There is luggage you cannot see.”

Today Mwenengabo is the executive director of the East and Central African Association for Indigenous Rights. While he’s happy to see newcomers welcomed in Canada, he continues his work for the people back home.

Mwenengabo spoke about his experience as a newcomer to Canada as part of a panel discussion at the University of New Brunswick on the immigrant experience.

“Our stories are singular, but our experiences are common,” he says.

Naming Frederick Wangabo Mwenengabo was a compromise.

Being born to separate ethnics groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo, especially to a pygmy father, meant expulsion to an exile island down a nearby river.

Italian missionaries had come to the island to preach to the exiles. A priest named Frederick convinced Mwenengabo’s father to set aside the pygmy tradition of symbolic animal names and name his son after the priest. Frederick’s middle and last name would be symbolic.

“My father brokered a deal with the priests who adopted me to give me the name Wangabo Mwenengabo, meaning a person who comes from the people and belongs to the people.”

Mwnengabo would go on to earn that name.

Life in the DRC was hard. War constantly threatened the people.

Mwenengabo became involved in several human rights movements providing education and relief to war torn areas. There were a peace talks, all while a presidential election was on the horizon.

Mwenengabo came to organize a respected relief program, one that the DRM’s politicians (some who would later be convicted for crimes against humanity) wanted to take credit for in their bids for presidency. Mwenengabo’s commitment to nonpartisanship led to increased harassment.

Eventually he was forced to seek refugee status in Uganda. But life there was not much better. Hired thugs would ambush and beat Mwenengabo in the streets while police officers made sure no one interfered. He faced wrongful arrests, threats of imprisonments and execution and even torture at the hands several government factions. At one point, Mwenengabo was kidnapped and tortured.

Mwenengabo has no doubts about the kindness of Fredericton’s and Canada’s people. He quickly found work at the University of New Brunswick and several multicultural organizations. What troubled him was that Canada’s government at the time was reaching out to the DMR’s government, whose human rights violations continue to this day.

“As I progressed here, I saw my friends back there dying. I knew the reasons why, and some of these reasons were really preventable.”

A new beginning doesn’t mean leaving behind the story of where he came from.

•••

Monika Stelzl couldn’t understand why the bus wouldn’t stop.

This was just one of many small challenges that made life a constant struggle.

In Czechoslovakia buses stop at each stop; she didn’t realize that in Canada buses only stop when a passenger pulled the cord.

Stelzl was living on her own in Halifax. She had no friends, knew very little English and her high school education had been interrupted for months by her journey to Canada from Soviet controlled Czechoslovakia.

“I would miss important appointments with government people because I would miss the bus stops.”

Stelzl would ride the bus for hours not knowing when it would stop, eventually ending up at the bus terminal where she would have to wait for a bus back.

“These are minor things when you know them but when you don’t know them you feel lost. You’re already confused and you feel like you not in a different country, you’re on a different planet.

“It feels like, at least at the beginning that leave a part of your life, and a part of your heart somewhere else.”

Stelzl spoke about her experience as a newcomer to Canada as part of a panel discussion at the University of New Brunswick on the immigrant experience.

Monica Stelzl. Photo by Alexander Corbett.
Monika Stelzl. Photo by Alexander Corbett.

She was born in Czechoslovakia. Life under communist rule had become dangerous and oppressive. Friends and neighbours grew suspicious of each other. People were disappearing.

When she was 17, her family decided to flee the country. Citizens of  Czechoslovakia were sometimes granted vacation passes to Western Europe. When Stelzl’s father managed to get a pass, they decided they would try to get out.

The government was always looking for refugees trying to escape the country. Those on vacation could only pack what would be expected on a short trip. Any momentos, any extra food or clothing would be too great a risk.

“If they would find anything that’s not for vacation, family pictures or pieces of jewelry, that would be a reason to not let you continue,” Stelzl said.

At this point no one knew the Soviet Union would eventually collapse, so no one ever expected to see their former homes again.

“I felt everything of my seventeen years of life would be left lost forever.”

When they arrived in Austria, Stelzl and her family ended up in a massive refugee camp for nearly a month. Conditions were cramped and fear of deportation was constant. Stelzl and her family were interrogated. There was fear of Soviet spies infiltrating Austria through the flood of refugees.

Everyone was on edge.

“My brother, who was maybe eleven, I would remember would run out of the bathroom screaming because people were knifing each other.”

The refugees took their troubles as just necessary steps in the process. Looking back after 25 years in Canada, Stelzl knows that a lot of their suffering could have been avoided.

“The dehumanization at the time that occurred to me as a refugee in Austria, [it] really felt that maybe I was not as human.”

Her family spent 18 months in Austria before moving to Canada. She soon decided to move out on her own. The stress of living as refugees had driven the family apart.

She built a life of her own in Canada thanks, she says, to the generosity of the people in her adoptive community. Today, she is an associate professor at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, N.B., and chair of the psychology department.

Stelzl empathizes with those refugees who have only recently arrived in new, and terrifying homes. Their transition will come slowly, only in part because of the challenges of life in a foreign land.

Stelzl recalls that even though her family had packed next to nothing, the emotional burden weighed heavy.

Arriving in Canada was the first time they got to stop and unpack the pain and suffering they’d endured.

“I think we will need to have the generosity of heart to accept people who have had traumatic experiences.”