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News, analysis and commentary by UBC Journalism students

New Canadians vote for their future

This federal election marks a new chapter for those fleeing war or oppression.

By Kathryn Helmore, Serena Renner, Ibrahim Daair and Ayesha Ghaffar , in Elections Voters , on October 16, 2019

Thousands of new Canadians will go to the polls for the first time on Oct. 21. Some have survived instability and insecurity. Now they get to shape their new country.

Their opinions will matter.

Immigrants and refugees make up a significant number of eligible voters. In the 2015 election, one-fifth of voters were foreign-born, and that number continues to climb.

In 2018 alone, 18,000 refugees claimed Canadian citizenship. Eighty per cent of population growth between now and 2036 will largely be a result of migration, according to Statistics Canada.

New Canadians spoke candidly about their priorities and perspectives. They share their stories and the issues that matter to them most.  

Esther Uwimana
27, multicultural community outreach, DiverseCity
(Serena Renner)

Esther Uwimana was two years old when her family fled from Burundi. They sought refuge after one of their children was killed during the genocide. When war broke out in the DRC, they packed up again, this time leaving for Tanzania, then again to Malawi where Esther lived in the Dzaleka refugee camp for 11 years.

At 21, Uwimana left her family and boarded a plane to Canada. “After a 29-hour journey, my whole world changed,” she said. 

“I’ve been called a refugee my whole life,” Uwimana said. “But right now, I have a place that I call home. Being in Canada, I can move freely. My voice can be heard when before I didn’t have a way to express my voice because of fear.”

She will be casting the first ballot of her life next week. Along with climate change and immigration, she feels strongly about Indigenous rights. 

“I feel like the Indigenous communities are being left out,” Uwimana said. “I’m grateful that those people were able to welcome me and allow me to live on this land, but we should give back to them. We should support them.”

Ibrahim Bolow
22, student, Douglas College
(Serena Renner)

Ibrahim Bolow was born in Saudi Arabia. His parents fled Somalia before he was born. He spent his childhood mostly in Syria until the family immigrated to Canada, one year before the war began.

He says he was most surprised by Canada’s cold winters and tall shiny buildings — and the idea of staying a while.

“As a child, you just get used to jumping from country to country,” Bolow said. “I thought we were just going to stay for a few months or years.”

It’s been nine years now, and he’ll be voting for the first time. Equality, job opportunities, and reducing university fees are top concerns as is the anti-immigrant rhetoric of candidates like People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier.

“If a hungry person comes by your neighbourhood asking for food, you try to help them,” Bolow said. “You don’t say, ‘I don’t know you. You’re not welcome here.’” 

Hana Woldeyes
21, student, SFU
(Ayesha Gaffar)

Hana Woldeyes left Ethiopia at the age of 15. She migrated to Canada with her father in search of a brighter future. It was not an easy transition. 

“Just like most immigrants, I couldn’t speak English,” Woldeyes said. “Making new friends and adapting to the system and the new culture wasn’t easy at all.” 

Six years later, Woldeyes is speaking fluent English while studying political science at Simon Fraser University. She’s also paying close attention to the federal election. 

Immigration is the most pressing issue for Woldeyes.

“At least giving permanent residents the right to vote in municipal elections,” she said. “The process to even get that paper takes about five years for some people. [We need to give] people the right to decide on things that affect them.”

Sharmarke Dubow 
35, city councillor, Victoria
(Quinton Gordon)

Sharmarke Dubow left Somalia during the height of civil war. He was eight years old. After two decades of instability, Dubow boarded a plane to Winnipeg in 2012. He became a Canadian citizen in 2017.

“Canada really felt like home the day I got off the plane. I knew I was headed for safety and stability,” Dubow said. “After 20 years of uncertainty, you’d be excited by stability.”

On Oct. 21, Dubow will cast his first ballot in a federal election. Dubow has voted in a municipal election. Dubow voted for himself as Victoria city councillor and won the position. He has been serving the people of Victoria since October 2018.

“The issues we face are deeper than political parties,” Dubow said. “We need to work together to face income disparity, decolonization, climate, and Indigenous justice. Above and beyond, we need to create communities of compassion.”

Mazen Bahhady
44, lecturer, McGill University
(Mazen Bahhady)

Mazen Bahhady spent 15 years teaching at a university in Syria. He applied to come to Canada in 2009. Five years later, he moved to Montreal. At the same time, he watched as his home country descended into civil war. 

“That last year [in Syria] was extremely difficult,” Bahhady said. “We didn’t have electricity at all. Running water was cut off most of the time. We spent about a month besieged by armed groups which meant we couldn’t get much food in.”

Bahhady is now a Canadian citizen, and he’s poised to cast his first ballot in the federal election.

“My main concern is the economy,” he said. “I’m looking for the party that will do a good job in creating jobs and making sure the Canadian economy is going to grow.” 

Immigration is also a major concern to Bahhady.

“Immigrants and refugees have been through so much just for the chance to start a new life,” he said. “Please don’t make it more difficult for them. All they want is to start their life in a new place.”