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Jack Knox: New Canadians feel right at home

The good news for Mohammad: Canada has granted him refugee status. The good news for Canada: We get to keep Mohammad.
The best thing about living in Canada? "The freedom to be myself," said Australian-born Joanne Ferguson, centre, one of 61 people sworn in at a Victoria citizenship ceremony on Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014.

The good news for Mohammad: Canada has granted him refugee status.

The good news for Canada: We get to keep Mohammad.

You might recall reading about him last month, how he had fled Afghanistan last summer with a death threat from the Taliban hanging over his head.

The extremists there didn’t like the way he had devoted himself to democracy and human rights work, didn’t like the way he ignored their warnings even after they gunned down nine people, including one of his friends, in a Kabul hotel in March.

Once in Canada, Mohammad got a crash course in Victoria politics when invited here by mayoral candidate Stephen Andrew’s campaign manager, Kit Spence, with whom he had worked in Afghanistan. Mohammad loved the civility of our civic elections (no ethnic divisions, no fear of criticizing candidates, no bodyguards, no guns) but was puzzled by voter apathy.

He’s in Burnaby now, still bubbling after a successful refugee hearing. He isn’t yet allowed to work or go to school, but has some savings to draw on. “I am good, I have no complaints,” he says. “Living in Afghanistan, you know how to adapt yourself to different situations.”

He and Spence have spoken about launching a non-governmental organization that would allow young people from Central Asia to visit Canada to study governance, see what it’s like to live in a functioning democracy free of systemic bribery and oppression, a place where the rule of law trumps tribalism.

In his mid-30s, Mohammad talks about Canada like a kid in a candy store. “The multiculturalism and the freedom — these two things I find so fascinating,” he says. He’s enthusiastic, idealistic, has none of the whining cynicism of those who have grown up treating affluence and comfort as a birthright, not a blessing.

The latter might do well to drop in on Citizenship and Immigration’s Yates Street offices this week, where close to 500 people are being sworn in as new Canadians in time for Christmas.

Sixty-one people from 23 countries took the oath Wednesday.

When I asked them what they liked best about this country, they came up with answers that sounded like they came out of a brochure but were, in fact, sincere.

“Security,” said Philippines native Rubylyn Dodwell. Brazil’s Karen Beales cited fairness, while India’s Sanjeev Vats spoke of equality: “There are all kinds of people living in Canada, and they all have equal rights.”

New Yorker Paula Gasparine described Canadians as “kind, generous,” while Indian-born Tajinder Samra chose “honest, happy” and England’s Harold Bailey opted for “open, friendly.”

“Politeness, everybody respects each other,” said Mohamed Tawfik of Egypt. The Villegas family from Mexico — dad Juan Carlos, mom Alejandra, 13-year-old Pablo and 11-year-old Alexa — tossed around words like “friendly,” “honest” and “safe.” A young man named Shaahid spoke in one breath about the political corruption in Zimbabwe, then in the next about the way Vancouverites turned out to clean up after the Stanley Cup riot.

“Everyone helps one another here,” he said. “It’s a family, basically.”

“You have the right to any job that hard work and talent can obtain,” citizenship judge Gerald Pash told the crowd. To native-born Canadians, that might sound like a grad-speech platitude, but to some in the room it was the key to a whole new life.

If the curmudgeonly and perpetually angry find all this tastes a bit like maple syrup-flavoured saccharin, too bad. It was nice to be in a room full of people who appreciate and are grateful for Canada. If few of them were, like Mohammad, fleeing violence and tyranny, all had become Canadian by choice, not accident.

Illinois-raised Colleen Grisham spoke about falling in love with Victoria the moment she saw the city open up in front of her as she rode the No. 70 bus from the ferry. “The first place I’ve felt at home is here,” she said Wednesday.

Well, welcome home to all of them. We can use what they bring.

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