Working with Refugee Women by Alice Lee (2000)

My family and I immigrated to Canada over twenty-five years ago, searching together for a better life. Though we came with hopes for new and better opportunities, our successes came with a price - years of struggle and isolation. We landed on the prairies and were confronted with a society very different that the one we had left. My parents laboured to raise seven children, each grappling with explicit daily outbursts of racism and violence, language acquisition, and the effort to find a place in a new culture. I grew up treated as an alien - an Asian, an Asian female who doesn't quite belong here – the people who surrounded me made certain I knew it.

Through the years I have fought to understand my heritage and the inherent contradictions created in attempts to bridge cultures from the West and East. My experience has led me to recognize too that I must account for the ways that the world treats women. In my life, different explanations were offered as to why I should behave in a specific way. Although the East and West embody vastly different philosophies, I came to recognize that my role as female remains quite the same. I began to understand that not only do I have to deal with the fact that, no matter how long I am here, no matter what I do, I am alien to this country, and a woman at that. I share this disadvantage with women across the world.

My introduction to feminism provided me with a comprehensive analysis that enabled me to grapple with these issues, explicitly identifying racism, gender inequality and the expression of power relations. Frontline experience became more and more valuable, instructing me in how to aid all women through anti-violence work. Activism within Vancouver Rape Relief and Women's Shelter, a women's organizing centre and transition house, has given me the privilege of meeting a diversity of women and sharing discussions regarding experiences of racism, sexism, poverty and the condition of our lives. These experiences direct and inform the way that I have come to understand the world – in particular, the plight of refugee women.

Just over one year ago, the media was flooded with endless stories of Chinese migrants entering Canadian waters on decrepit boats. Since that time, coverage of the event has been uniformly restricted and negative, making it impossible for an average person to determine the true circumstances of these refugees and why they would chose such a dangerous journey. Feminist analysis however, guided by the stories told to us by refugee women, reveals that the Canadian response is a tool of patriarchy.

The messages expressed by local and national media embody predictable judgements regarding refugees and the conditions of their lives. Depicted as illegal, costly to the tax payer and as threats to our immigration system, Chinese refugees have been incarcerated by the Canadian government for over a year. Arguing that prison is necessary to ensure the refugee's safety, the government neatly overstepped human rights, bypassing just procedure and speeding deportation. Providing inadequate translation services, insufficient and overworked representation, and punitive tactics including isolation lockdowns. The Canadian government insured that most, if not all, claimants would lose their bid for refugee status. The government's action in response to these refugees is unacceptable and has contributed directly to racist rationalizations in the larger community. It has become common to hear age-old statements like "they should go back where they came from" and "they should come here on legal terms and not be allowed to jump queue", as if our immigration system is fair and/or accessible to all people. The cynicism of the right wing however, is apparent in the systemic way that cantankerous political issues (i.e., the "squandering" of taxpayers' money) have been linked to successfully augment racist notions to insure that the public will develop negative views.

An orchestrated public response has been created to isolate the refugees and obscure the true costs of capitalism and its natural brother, patriarchy. It is difficult for the Chinese community in Canada to attach themselves to refugees when all messages include the costs of doing so. As a culture that has historically struggled to acquire and maintain space in Canada, the community is well versed in the effects and backlash of racism. Attaching themselves and leaving other Canadians with "a bad image of the Chinese" is recognized as an imprudent strategic choice.

Within the Canadian Chinese community, the distance to the refugees is enhanced by the classist structure of immigration laws that have opened the borders to those who are wealthy or hold professional standing. Recent Chinese immigrants are of the elite, middle and upper classes that share no empathy or insight regarding the refugee's risk in search of a decent life.

Feminists have countered this isolation with an examination of why Chinese women and their children would take such a dangerous journey. In response to our analysis of the international trafficking of women and the racist response organized by the Canadian government, our collective decided that we must somehow participate in their struggle -these women are brought here due to the universal circumstances and conditions of our lives.

At the LEAF (Legal Education Action Fund) conference, women's groups organized a call for the immediate release of the Chinese refugees. Challenging Minister Hedy Fry's argument that the government was only shielding refugees from dangerous snakeheads and from having no place to go, women's groups quickly responded by arguing that refugees have a place in our community and by offering to shelter women and children upon their release.

Since that early call, our shelter has worked closely with DARE (Direct Action against Refugee Exploitation) to organize the release and housing of refugee women. I have met each women and discussed the conditions of their lives so that we can make certain that their voices and stories will be told and added to the stories of all women who have stayed in our shelter. Each woman has shared similar stories, speaking about hopes and dreams, confronting the same problems as women who have come before them, trying to find solutions to daily oppression. They are tired of expected servitude to their husbands, partners, and the men around them, low paying slave labour jobs, lack of control over their own bodies, lack of sexual autonomy and the paucity of freedom and control over their own lives. The women stated that wife beating is still viewed as a family problem with no repercussions from the judicial system and that divorce is still inaccessible to most women, particularly those in rural areas.

The women recounted how the enforcement of the "One Child" policy in China has forced many women into involuntary sterilization or compelled them to have "illegal" births in secrecy. As babies born outside the law, infants are left without legal registration of the birth. Hidden from the government, without identification, the children are faced with a life without health care, access to housing, possibility of migration, and with great obstacles to obtaining an education or work. As the result of a social push to raise male children, female children are overwhelmingly hidden, left to bear the brunt of the policy as they are forced to live their lives with no protection from the state.

The women each told us of the costs of the "new" economy, of how they are expected to fully participate in the workforce without childcare. For these women, the only work available to them was slave labour jobs, in the farms, factories and sweatshops created by first world corporations who capitalized on their poverty.

We recognize that these women have taken a huge risk in the hopes of a better life, a life that is widely promoted by developing nations. It is easy for traffickers to promote and sell to these women – their lives offer few alternatives. Our government has colluded with these traffickers by applying tremendous pressure with other first world nations to demand that third world countries conform to the western market ideologies hidden in calls for freedom and democracy. As the women said "Canada is known as a country of prosperity and human rights". Promotion of first world standards of living and consumption directly contradicts the material limitations of third world countries. One woman said "My life and my family's life is very bad I decided to come to better myself so that I can aid my family".

A barrier remains between Canadian women and the Chinese refugee women that we have been in contact with. When we broached the topic of links between trafficking and prostitution, women were unwilling to acknowledge the possibility that they may be forced to work the streets or massage parlors. This response is not surprising given their unjust treatment from the government and larger Canadian society. A further example of patriarchy, the government strategy insured that these women would be unable to organize with other women.

We call women to fight their own racism by recognizing the ways that the state is actively promoting racism. We actively challenge the racist status quo by making certain that we extend the practice and benefits of feminist analysis, historically benefiting primarily white Canadian women, to the Chinese refugees, aboriginal women and women of colour. If we can' t demand compassion for these women then how can we expect any changes in our lives that will address the inequality of women in Canada.

The stories these women tell directs and confirms our analysis of their decisions and subsequent treatment. It is clear that women's groups should recognize these events as feminist issues and that our intervention can help. Women's groups should continue to shelter and advocate for changes to our unjust immigration policies and recognition of refugee status. Let us utilize the International March 2000 to fight and call for international accountability to women.

Alice Lee is the daughter of a Chinese Doctor, mother, herbalist and an acupuncturist father who grew up in the Prairies and has worked in the transition house and rape crisis centre for some six years now. She practices martial arts and returns to China whenever she can to her teacher and to a country she loves.