Tuesday, 20 May 2014

The Official Project and My Summer Plans

Hello blog world!

Today I finally wanted to share with all of you what my dissertation topic is and why I decided to choose this topic. First is the cole's notes version of the project followed by a more in-depth look at the thesis.
Ugandan Asian refugees leaving Entebbe airport in 1972

Who: Ugandans of South Asian descent (who began migrating to Uganda in the early 1900s) who were expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin
What: The resettlement of Ugandan Asian refugees in Canada.
When: The expulsion decree was announced by Idi Amin on August 4th 1972 who claimed that Asians were sabotaging Uganda's economy and were given 90 days to leave the country or face extreme hardship.
Where: Approximately 80,000 Ugandan Asians were expelled from Uganda with the majority going to the United Kingdom and India. However, Canada played a significant role in resettling roughly 7,000 refugees from 1972-1974.
Why: I am particular attached to this topic because my mother and her family came to Canada as Ugandan Asian refugees (major credit goes to my supervisor Stephanie Bangarth who suggested the topic to me back in 2011 with her famous "write what you know" advice). Furthermore, it was the largest influx of non-European, non-white, and predominantly Muslim refugees to have ever come to Canada by 1974.
How: Using a large collection of archival material, newspapers, magazines, and other documents along with oral interviews with refugees and government officials the thesis aims to recapture their experiences of expulsion and subsequent resettlement in Canada.

Tentative Title: "'Gifts from Amin:' The Resettlement and Integration of Ugandan Asian Refugees in Canada." Former Governor General of Canada in her book Room for All of Us described the arrival of Ugandan Asian refugees as "a present from Idi Amin" (p.21).

The thesis project itself has officially been approved by the history department at the University of Western Ontario and now I will spend the entire summer conducting research. The main plan is to collect and read as much archival material as possible from the National Archives of Canada, the records from Citizenship and Immigration Canada, and the Carleton University archive on Ugandan Asian Refugees. I am also happy to announce that the Research Ethics Board has also approved the use of oral interviews so things are looking great to get this project going.

I won't lie to any of you about the enduring process of spending a solid 20 months of my PhD career on taking courses, completing comprehensive exams, and the thesis proposal BUT now it is finally time to dedicate 100% of my time on this research project. It feels amazing to devote my entire focus on exploring how this initiative took place and I cannot wait to meet with refugees and hear their stories about life in Canada.

There are many more reasons as to why I choose this topic and here are just a few:

  • This the first time in Canadian history that such a large number of non-white refugees came to Canada
  • The majority of those who came were Muslims which directly showcases how a large number of Muslim refugees have come to Canada in the past and successfully integrated themselves within Canadian society. This refutes the negative stereotypes that surrounds Muslim refugees today and holds particular significance with Canada's reluctance to admit Syrian refugees today.
  • It highlights how the Canadian government successfully administered a resettlement initiative that involved processing tens of thousands refugee applicants within 90 days. 
  • The hope is that the dissertation will refute the current discourse surrounding refugees who are labeled as "asylum seekers", "bogus claimants", "terrorists", and "criminals" in the media and by the Canadian government.  The dissertation will reinforce the realities of being a persecuted individual who is in need of assistance. It will serve as an academic and historical source to inform both policy and the Canadian public on how refugees have embraced life in Canada.
  • It will remind Canada of its past benevolence and how it has significantly benefited several aspects of Canadian society.
  • The dissertation also aims to create a more inclusive history of Canada that begins to acknowledge the contributions of immigrant and refugee communities to Canadian society.
  • I also aim to showcase how Canadian officials and Canadians on the ground aided in the resettlement of Ugandan Asian refugees. 
  • It also marks the arrival of a large group of Ismaili Muslims who in conjunction with Tanzanian Ismailis and other early arrivals (a small group of Ismailis that immigrated in the 1950s-1970s) would lay the foundations of the Ismaili community in Canada
Ugandan Asian refugees arriving at the military base
in Longue Pointe, Montreal 1972.

I will never forget the story my mother told me when she first arrived in Canada in November of 1972 as a 17 year old girl who just finished a one year college degree. On her second day here she was fortunate enough to have landed an interview at CIBC. A local volunteer had offered to walk her to the interview from the government sponsored hotel she was staying at so that she would not get lost. Using her newly minted college degree she landed the job and started the next day. As determined as ever, she woke up bright and early the next day to start her first full-time job in Canada. Somehow amidst the excitement of getting to work and the fact that she had to walk to work alone she got lost. Being 17 and from Uganda she didn't own a jacket and was frozen to the bone. She arrived 3 hours late feeling colder than she thought humanly possible and very discouraged. Her boss told her not to worry at all and take the first day to get acquainted to the office. The very next day she was up and ready to get to make it to work on time. When she got there - as a genuine smile turns up on her face as she describes the story - the team at CIBC had organized a used winter clothing drive for her and her family. Jackets, gloves, scarves, and mittens, an absolutely stunning sight for village girl used to living beside the equator.

These are the kinds of stories and experiences I want to discover throughout my dissertation project. I want to demonstrate both the good and the more difficult experiences of life in Canada for these refugees in addition to uncovering the dynamic historical context surrounding their resettlement in Canada.

For the summer I will be launching a new series on this blog titled "Adventures from the Archives". This will consist of a post each week featuring some gems from my research. I look forward to all of your feedback and as always don't be shy to reach out to me here on the blog or via e-mail! Thank you all for your endless encouragement and support throughout this project.

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