Living out history - Ghebrelul and Medhin
Ghebrelul and Medhin’s journey to Canada reads as a historical novel full of twists and turns.
Ghebrelul joined the former imperial Ethiopian Navy in 1962, where he served until he fled the country in 1978. Ethiopia and Eritrea had been colonized by Italy before the Allied powers defeated the Italian fascist regime in World War II. Shortly after, the Eritrean people wanted to create an independent state. However, the Western powers decided that Eritrea would be incorporated with Ethiopia. Eritreans did not give up and continued to struggle for national self-determination – first protesting peacefully, then taking up arms when peaceful demonstrations did not yield results. In the mid-1970s, a dictatorial regime came to power. The Ethiopian government declared an era of “red terror” in the country, a “terrible time for Eritrean and Ethiopian people” says Ghebrelul. The core objective of the red terror was to silence any kind of dissent in the country, especially Eritrean dissent. “[My Eritrean friends and I in the navy] were ordered to fight against our brothers and sisters who were fighting for Eritrean freedom and independence. Decision day had suddenly arrived.”

Fighting against his own people was intolerable. So, in February 1978, Ghebrelul left the Ethiopian Navy and Eritrea. Medhin and their two daughters followed him. Over the next ten years, their journey took them to several countries – Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Belgium, Bulgaria, and finally Greece. Ghebrelul and his family are Christians, which added to their already difficult circumstances. Ghebrelul’s religious beliefs led to his month-long imprisonment and eventual deportation from Saudi Arabia, but they also served as the link connecting him to people from Canada. Fellow Canadian churchgoers met Ghebrelul and his family in Saudi Arabia. They then helped connect the family to a sponsor group in Toronto.

Ghebrelul, Medhin, and their two daughters arrived in Canada on April 12th, 1989.

A beautiful welcome
The family’s sponsors were parishioners from an Anglican Church in Toronto. After their first week in Canada, the family were invited to visit the church. “There were flowers and lots of people welcoming us at the church. They prepared a beautiful event for us. They wanted to make us feel warm because we were new” says Medhin. The relationship between Ghebrelul and Medhin and their sponsors worked out well, to say the least. The sponsors were there to support the family in every way they needed. The sponsors grew especially close to Ghebrelul and Medhin’s daughters – for Christmas, they bought them everything they wanted. Ghebrelul and Medhin have been a part of the Church that welcomed them ever since their arrival in 1989.

“They gave us all that, our kids and ourselves, to be where we are. The church, our sponsors – they gave us hope, they gave us motivation.”

Being underestimated and infantilized
Not every relationship in Canada was as positive for Ghebrelul and Medhin. Medhin recalls the time when she started English classes – she couldn’t spell “Eritrea” in English, which made her classmates laugh at her. Feeling embarrassed and discouraged, Medhin wanted to quit. Thankfully, her teacher would not let her. She told Medhin to stay and be proud of herself for her achievements. That encouraged Medhin – thanks to the support of her teacher, Medhin graduated with Honour’s from George Brown College. As anywhere, relationships in Canada are complex – some people will laugh at you and underestimate you, while others will make it a point to support you.

For Ghebrelul, like for many other newcomers, the biggest challenge was finding employment. In Saudi Arabia, Ghebrelul was able to work for a Saudi naval base because of his military experience. However, his extensive foreign experience was not valued after coming to Canada. Employers wanted to see Canadian work experience. It was a difficult time for the family. After a while, Ghebrelul found a job at a business company “on the 22nd floor at Yonge and Eglinton.” The family was happy and secure – until after about three years when Ghebrelul got laid off as a part of a massive company downsizing. Ghebrelul did not give up. He upgraded his credentials through a program at George Brown in the hope that it would help him find another job. “I applied to six different banks…. They said that they will keep my resume for six months. But I couldn’t wait for six months – I had a family.” Ghebrelul changed careers again to support his family and became a certified taxi driver in Toronto - “I know the city very well now.”

Accomplishments, hopes and advice.
Integrating into the work culture has been challenging, and Ghebrelul and Medhin have had to take different jobs to support their family. For all their sacrifices, however, they beam with pride when talking about their family. One of their daughters became a human rights lawyer and ran for mayor of Toronto, they proudly share. “We came here as refugees, imagine!” exclaims Ghebrelul. Their daughter’s work also gave them a chance to meet a former Prime Minister. “We came from nothing and got to meet the Prime Minister of Canada!” says Medhin.

Ghebrelul and Medhin also take pride in the hard work they put in to build their communities. Despite being undervalued and at times infantilized, they have carved out places in the job market, the church, and their neighbourhood. When they arrived, Ghebrelul and Medhin were the only Eritreans in their community. Now, they are at the heart of a growing and diverse community, as they continually welcome newcomers to the neighbourhood.

A final word to Canadians
One myth Medhin and Ghebrelul want to dispel is that refugees will be a burden to Canadians—they won’t be! Refugees are eager to work and contribute to society: “Many people who come here, they know more [about Canada] than we do. They have done their research online.”



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