On Nov. 8, Melissa Fleming, the Head of Communications and Chief Spokesperson at the United Nations Refugee Agency, came to Hamilton. In addition to visiting local organizations, Fleming also gave a lecture in Convocation Hall.
Fleming is responsible for leading media groups and highlighting the plight and resilience of refugees across the globe.
In her speech at McMaster, Fleming focused on the concept of home and emphasized that, by virtue of their situation, refugees are “confronted with new meanings of ‘home’.”
Fleming also visited the Immigrants Working Centre, an organization specializing in settlement services for newly landed immigrants, and Karam Kitchen, a Hamilton-based catering company operated by Syrian refugee women.
“When people become refugees they need a special kind of home, defined in this case as a place of sanctuary where they can heal, and where they can rebuild,” said Fleming.
Nevertheless, Fleming noted the difficulty of the rebuilding process and the fact that millions of refugees continue to question and redefine what home means to them.
Towards the end of her speech, Fleming discussed No Stranger Place, a new UNHCR project aimed at illuminating the stories of refugees and hosts from across Europe.
She also praised Canada’s private sponsorship of refugees program, which has brought over 275,000 refugees to the country since 1979.
“When people become refugees they need a special kind of home – defined in this case as a place of sanctuary where they can heal, and where they can rebuild.”
Head of Communications and Chief Spokesperson
United Nations Refugee Agency
Fleming concluded by offering her definition of home:
“Home is a place of compassionate community. It is a place where the act of compassion benefits the receiver, but also enriches the giver,” she said.
While earnest and well-intentioned, Fleming’s speech garnered mixed reactions from those in attendance.
Odette Anderyous, a refugee in attendance, wished that Fleming spoke more about how refugees go about finding a new home and how long they have to wait until their applications are processed.
“It was like the whole lecture was to convince some people that we as refugees have to be here and live with [hosts] and that we are just numbers that Canada needs every year for economic purposes,” said Anderyous.
In addition, Anderyous critiqued Fleming’s use of the word “asylum” and the fact that she, a spokesperson for refugee issues, does not know what it is like to be one.
For others, however, Fleming’s speech was a beacon of hope.
“She spoke directly on her experiences in the camps, and meeting refugees, which is an extremely important perspective to take into account,” said Abdullah Al Hamlawi, a fourth year health studies and peace studies student who helped organize Fleming’s visit.
“The meeting with Melissa went great and she got to see how refugees are creating their own jobs by being entrepreneurs when they lack Canadian experience,” said Al Hamlawi.
Although Fleming has left the city, Hamilton continues to support refugees with its different services aimed at resettling and empowering newcomers in Hamilton.