By TOM GODFREY
Ottawa singer and World Refugee Day speaker Emmanuel Oletho lost eight family members during genocide in his native Ethiopia and is on a crusade to end the senseless violence and killings in his homeland.
“My father was killed and I lost two uncles and their sons,” said Oletho. “Our house was burned down and many others lost their lives.”
He and a few friends survived in the jungle for two weeks before crossing the border to Kenya, where they lived for two years in refugee camp.
His family members were among 425 “educated members” of the Anuak tribe who were killed by Ethiopian troops in December 2003. The soldiers forced about 10,000 people to flee to camps in Sudan and Kenya after they raided 12 villages in the province of Gambella.
Oletho, 27, made it to Canada as a refugee in 2008 under a program to study. He graduated from Carleton University in Ottawa majoring in political science.
He is one of the speakers at a World Refugee Day (WRD) event being held on June 20 at the Daniels Spectrum’s Artscape Lounge, at 585 Dundas Street E. in Regent Park.
The event is observed annually by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.
“Today is like a birthday for me,” an excited Oletho told Share. “This is one day we can tell others of the plight of refugees and about the lives they face.”
The activist is also a songwriter who sang in the short-lived Ottawa band The Fugees, that helped to raise funds and awareness of the plight of refugees. The group raised $20,000 in a benefit for victims of the Haitian earthquake.
“I have survived genocide and I want to stop something like that from ever happening again,” said Oletho. “As Canadians we have an obligation to advocate for peace for everyone in all countries.”
Toronto lawyer El-Farouk Khaki will also speak at the gathering. The long-time immigration lawyer said his family fled to Canada from Tanzania in the 1970s.
“Our history is that people come here from other places and enrich this country,” said Khaki. “Even refugees who come here to flee persecution have much to offer Canada.”
Khaki said a large number of refugees are seeking asylum here due to a crackdown against their sexual orientation in many countries.
“We are all interconnected and whatever happens somewhere else will affect us,” he said. “In many cases these refugees have escaped countries with only their lives.”
Khaki’s family was among the 50,000 South Asians who were forced to flee Tanzania in the 1970s for asylum in Canada and Britain due to a political crackdown.
The WRD event is also being marked with a special citizenship ceremony in Etobicoke and a flag-raising ceremony at City Hall. The CN Tower, Niagara Falls and Peace Bridge will be lit in the blue colour of the UN.
There are similar celebrations taking place in Ottawa, B.C., Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Quebec.
Canadians and community groups are urged to mark the day by attending a local refugee day event, sharing WRD videos or raising awareness on social media.
There will be a booth and displays by sponsors including Amnesty International, the Canadian Red Cross, the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture, Christie Refugee Welcome Centre, COSTI, Sojourn House and Thorncliffe Neighbourhood Office.
The UN estimates there were about 10.4 million refugees of concern last year. Another 4.8 million are looked after in some 60 camps in the Middle East.
Canada accepts about 15,000 refugees each year. More than half are selected abroad for resettlement here. The others are privately sponsored or successful claimants, who arrive in Canada seeking protection.