In one of Samson Zeremariam’s first phone calls home to Eritrea, his father declared Canada must be colder than his own freezer. Samson laughs now, but he didn’t find it funny then. While language is the major barrier for most refugees, for him it has always been the weather.
Samson was born in Eritrea, but lived in Sudan during the war for independence. He returned to Eritrea for university psychology studies. “It makes you understand people and makes it easy to see different ways people see things.” He intended to work as a social worker or in a children’s hospital, but escaped Eritrea for Sudan in fear that his obligatory 18-month national service would be extended.
Samson’s English was good and he became an interpreter with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. But one night he and his wife, Almaz, were kidnapped, presumably because the Sudanese government thought he was a spy. He was held for three days and Almaz for 43 days. They quickly fled to Canada for safety. “We didn’t have time to know anything about anything,” says Samson. “It was very scary there. We couldn’t do anything on our own.”
Arriving here with Almaz – pregnant with their first child – was a great relief. ISANS provided help including English for Business classes. Samson worked as an office cleaner and a hotel dish washer. “It’s a choice. I didn’t expect to sit in an office when I don’t know the system here.” He studied to be a machinist at the Nova Scotia Community College and received a work term followed by full-time jobs with Pratt and Whitney and Advanced Precision. When he was laid off in 2008, he became a cab driver. He anticipates being hired at the Irving Shipyard.
Canada is home now. “When you move to a new country, it’s your job to learn everything,” says Samson. “Keep your traditions if you want, but learn the culture and language around you.” Almaz cares for their three girls – Elellta, 11, Elim, 9 and Naomi, 7 – and sometimes works for ISANS as an interpreter and a Life Skills Worker for new arrivals from Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and the Middle East. Samson also helps new arrivals at Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia. “I can see the relief to have someone speak your own language and show you around. I tell them to work hard and if you don’t have an education, get educated. You have to depend on yourself.”
Samson is a member of a private refugee sponsorship group working toward bringing new arrivals here from Israel, Sudan and Uganda. Until recently he was chair of the Eritrean/Canadian Association, a group focused on teaching their native language to their children. The family enjoys swimming and has friends from various countries. Samson’s parents are still in Eritrea – he visited them once in Sudan – while his siblings are spread throughout the world.
Samson became a citizen in 2006. “Wherever I go I have a Canadian passport. And I just really wanted to vote so my voice would go somewhere. Life here is good. There’s no fear. It is peaceful.”