Former refugee casts first ballot as Canadian, then wins council seat

A lot of politicians scored big wins in the civic elections Saturday, but it’s hard to imagine any of them had a day like Sharmarke Dubow.

The former Somali refugee not only voted for the first time as a Canadian citizen, he won a seat on Victoria city council.

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“What was overwhelming was people putting trust in me — trusting that I would represent them,” he said Monday.

“That is a powerful message not only to the city but, to the whole country and to the whole of North America.”

> More election coverage at timescolonist.com/elections

Indeed, since his election Saturday, Dubow, 34, has been interviewed on Somali television and inundated with congratulatory Facebook and email messages from people inspired by his story.

”I’m receiving them from all around the world, from Minneapolis to Mogadishu,” he said. “I’m not kidding.”

Some of the messages have come from people in refugee camps like the one in Kenya, where Dubow spent part of his childhood after fleeing civil war in Somalia at the age of eight.

“Internationally, it’s like they can’t believe that a former refugee, someone who has been here less than seven years,” has pulled off such a feat, he said.

It’s a remarkable accomplishment for a man who spent 20 years without a country to call home.

As a child, Dubow was unable to attend school in the refugee camp, but he still went on to earn a degree in business technology from Cape Breton University, which runs the Canadian International College in Cairo.

In 2010, he was sponsored by a family member to move to Winnipeg and, in 2012, he arrived in Victoria where he worked with the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society and the Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria, helping to link refugees with support services.

On Monday, he stopped by the association’s office to celebrate his victory with friends and former colleagues.

“As I opened my first email, there’s Sharmarke coming in to thank everybody, to give everybody hugs,” said Kate Longpre, the association’s community integration coordinator.

The gesture, she said, spoke to Sharmarke’s caring, thoughtful nature and meant a lot to the people he worked with in the past. His victory, however, will mean even more to people with similar backgrounds to Dubow, Longpre said. “For refugees, for newcomers that come to Victoria to see that a Somalian refugee is part of Victoria city council, says a lot for people of colour, does a lot for refugees.

“It’s great to see Victoria city council have more diversity and representation on it.”

Dubow, who ran as part of the Together Victoria slate committed to creating more affordable housing and building an inclusive city, said he’s celebrating now, but eager to take the oath of office and get to work.

“For 20 years, I was a refugee,” he said. “So no country ever gave me citizenship or the right to vote or the right to participate in democracy.

“So being Canadian is being able not only to serve and make my community better, but also to cast my vote. And [to get] elected the same night is just amazing.

“And that is what will motivate me to always continue. Even if I wasn’t elected, I would still have continued to work to make my community better.”

Of the attention he’s receiving now, Dubow said he has no desire to be a hero, but he’s happy if his story inspires others — perhaps even an eight-year-old boy in a refugee camp somewhere, wondering what life holds for him.

“Maybe that kid sees, ‘One day, I’ll become something. There’s a life behind those bars of the camp. You never know.’ ”

lkines@timescolonist.com

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