Tuesday 27 November 2012

On the Camino with Santiago – Michelle Ball

By Santiago Rodriguez, S.J. 

This is my interview column. Once a month, I will feature some of my personal heroes. These are men and women who are addressing some of the most important challenges of our time.

Credit: www.romerohouse.org

Michelle Ball is the daughter of a Presbyterian Minister and Deaconess. Her family has a bit of an identity crisis - her father is from Vancouver Island, her mother southern Ontario. She was born in the prairies and her brother in Québec, and she grew up as a teenager in the nation's capital. She is now an intern at Romero House in Toronto, a not-for-profit transitional housing for refugee claimants. Inspired by the late Archbishop Oscar Romero, the principle of Romero House is that living with people and learning together how to be good neighbours is the key to healthy communities, as well as the catalyst for inner transformation. Michelle’s desire to live and work with newly arrived refugees is borne out of her experiences studying in South Africa and India, and through her studies in international development at the University of Guelph.

Santiago Rodriguez (SR): What led you to work with refugees? How does your faith inform that work?

Michelle Ball (MB): Growing up in a household that frequently practiced radical hospitality, and being encouraged by my family to be a global citizen, meant that from a young age I knew what kind of life I wanted to live. I discovered in my growing up a passion for helping others, for meeting and spending time getting to know those who were seemingly different than myself, and for imagining how to build a better world. My faith as a Christian meant that I was curious about the importance of community to challenge ourselves to live together and to live well as individuals bound by a common thread. I believe that faith at its best pushes us to live a life that challenges the status quo and finds creative possibilities for loving our neighbours. Coming to Romero House was a natural consequence of wanting to share all of my life (my work, my leisure, my physical living space, my friendship) with others who needed a community of support.

SR: How are refugees a social justice issue? Romero House recognizes the human dignity in refugees through its accompaniment. What does it mean to accompany a refugee and how is it different from assistance given by other social institutions?

MB: I do not believe that refugees are an "issue". Refugees are people, and they are people who were just like you and me until they were forcibly uprooted. If refugees are treated as an issue, their faces are erased and it is impossible for us to respond as a person would to a neighbour in need. As a Christian, I especially believe that as those who claim to live in the grace of a loving God, we have a special calling to reach out to the "stranger" amongst us. Befriending and learning from those who are newly arrived in Canada from traumatic situations is an experience that every Canadian should have.

As Shane Claiborne says: "Don't choose issues; choose people." At Romero House, none of us are professionals. We are not social workers or doctors or lawyers. This frees us from having to have a "professional" relationship with those refugees who live with us (whom we call Residents) and allows us to become involved in their lives. By literally living in the same home, we are able to see each other at our worst and at our best, and we get to see individuals holistically instead of just their "problems".

SR: You are familiar with the typical picture about refugees. They have been constructed as traumatized victims living in desperate conditions, without enough to eat, full of sadness and without many options in life. These images of distraught refugees are not always true. For those of us who are not familiar with refugees, can you give us an insight of what life is like for a refugee in Canada?

MB: Refugees are just like the rest of us. The typical idea of refugees as sad and helpless individuals is not only untrue but it prevents us from responding to them in a way that treats them as equals. A refugee can come from any country, any economic-social class, any race or culture. Many Canadians, if asked to imagine what a refugee looks like, pictures someone (usually a woman) living in a refugee camp (usually in Africa) who comes to Canada to escape cultural or political persecution. This image does not reflect the breadth of experiences, professions, and other backgrounds which I have experienced in the individuals at Romero House. For instance, many of the individuals with whom I live and work were professionals back home; lawyers, police officers, business people, professors, etc. Other individuals have incredible stories of how and their families made it to Canada, displaying an incredible ability to survive and carve out a place for themselves here. All of this does not speak of helplessness to me!

This is not to say that refugees in Canada do not face many obstacles. Even when refugees have made it to Canada, the refugee determination system is a broken and complex system which many of us (who speak English!) would even struggle to navigate. Refugee claimants often live in a state of limbo for years, awaiting a decision on their refugee claim which is a disempowering experience. Access barriers, cultural barriers, and language barriers mean that refugees also struggle in Canada to access health care, affordable housing, gainful employment. Despite these barriers, many of those I have met and worked with show me every day their amazing capacity for joy and resilience.

SR: We often hear that taking refugees in causes economic strain for a country. How do you respond to these objections?

MB: Many of the refugees I have met at Romero House were and continue to be well educated professionals back home. Refugees are not able to receive work permits for many months after arriving in Canada, and so it is necessary to go on Social Assistance, a fact many Canadian take objection with. Many refugees, however, are eager to enter the working world once they receive the permit, and have obtained sufficient language skills. The economic price tag of refugee determination and settlement is relatively small as well. Until June 2012, refugees had health care coverage comparable to provincial health care. This health cost only fifty-nine cents per Canadian per year. More importantly, the value which refugees bring to our country is beyond an economic analysis. Canada takes only a tiny fraction of all refugees, and it is our responsibility as well as an honour to contribute to this international effort. Certainly, not all decisions that we make as a nation have to boil down to the economics, and nothing else.

SR: What are some of the specific problems refugees are facing in Canada? What are behind those issues?

MB: There have been some very damaging laws and policies passed in the federal government just this year that make life even more difficult for refugees in Canada. Health care was cut for refugee claimants this past summer, leading to complete confusion and protest among health care providers. In addition, Bill C-31 was passed in June of 2012, which is a law that fundamentally alters refugee determination in Canada. This law has created a two-tier system: depending on the country from which they come or the way in which they arrive in Canada, refugees can have different rights to appeal, and different time frames. For example, if the Minister of Immigration decides that a country is “safe” and unlikely to produce refugees, individuals coming from there have only forty-five days to prepare for a hearing and have no right to appeal, or to have humanitarian considerations, etc. Other changes include the right to detain minors for up to six months with only one review, a bar on pre-removal risk assessment, and extremely shortened time lines which mean that many refugees will fail to be accepted simply due to inability to gather evidence in time.

Even more worrying than the changes themselves is the kind of rhetoric used by our government about refugees in Canada. The entire dialogue around refugees has taken a turn for the negative, encouraging Canadians to see refugees as “bogus” or “queue-jumpers” who are in Canada to take advantage of us. This culture of fear towards refugees is what is being propagated in the media and elsewhere to justify these extreme political changes and unfair laws. As persons who know refugees on a personal level, who are passionate about justice for all, and who care about Canada's obligations to treat refugees fairly, these changes should be a wake up call.

SR: Thank you for helping us to pay attention and to make a little more room in our hearts for our sisters and brothers who are seeking refuge. May this be a call into action to "find creative possibilities for loving our neighbours".


  1. This is a fantastic article on one who lives, and breathes the reality of being a Global Citizen through the day-to-day practice of living with the “Stranger amongst us.” This philosophy unveils the vicious mask created by barriers that are constructed through economic divisions, political divisions, racism, subjugation, oppression, inequality, injustice and the culture of fear,and replaces it with the face of compassion. It clearly demonstrates the nutrients that are needed to stimulate that inner transformation which is crucially required to make this entire world a better place.

    All the best


  2. Thank you for the encouragement on the entry. Michelle is an amazing woman and her journey is very life giving.