Finding home: the story of a refugee who discovered safety in Victoria
After a childhood filled with conflict and upheaval, Coun. Sharmarke Dubow wants to make positive change
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After a childhood filled with conflict and upheaval, Coun. Sharmarke Dubow wants to make positive change
Nearly three decades later, Sharmarke Dubow still clearly remembers his mother waking him up in the middle of the night. He, then eight-years-old, was instructed to don three sweaters and two pairs of trousers, before heading to the shore with his mother and sister at the crack of dawn.
He remembers her negotiating with the people who had access to fishing boats—“Some people will call them smugglers, some will call them agents,” Dubow tells me—and on the second attempt, securing safe passage for him and his sister away from war-torn Somalia and towards safe haven.
Dubow is one of 22 siblings. That night, only he and his sister were able to get away from the civil war that had broken out in their homeland, Somalia—a country that remains in turmoil to this day.
“When you are a refugee, you don't decide or plan which day you leave, what time you leave,” Dubow said. “Things happen so suddenly and you have to make the hard choice. My mother made the hard choice that some of the family members would have to go and others [would] have to join [later].”
A few days later, their boat arrived in Kenya, but wasn’t allowed to dock at first because the country had been receiving an influx of Somali refugees and the government began pushing back against the new arrivals. Eventually, after negotiations between the Somali government and the UN Refugee Agency, the boat was accepted, and Dubow and his sister were taken to a camp in Mombasa, Kenya.
It was a little less than two years before Dubow’s mom was able to join him in the refugee camp. He recalls carefree childhood days spent playing soccer barefoot and getting into high jinks with other kids at camp.
The real burden of making sure there was enough clean water to drink, food to eat, and medicine for when someone was sick or injured fell on the adults. For Dubow’s family, the responsibility was entirely on his single mother.
“She was a woman who had integrity, generousness [sic], and selflessness. She’s not highly educated, but she’s street educated,” he said. “She raised us and she was a strong woman. That [is] always ingrained in me and that legacy is part of how I carry and operate [myself].”
He lived at that camp for five years before things changed again. Tensions increased between the ever-expanding refugee camp dwellers and the farmers and penitentiary workers on the other side of the fence.
Then, the Kenyan government decided to shut down the camp altogether. There were three options for refugees: resettlement to the US, repatriation to Somalia, or relocation to another camp at the border of Somalia and Kenya.
“My mother always thought the civil war would end and we would go back home and… a lot of refugees want to go back home,” he recalls. “Somalia until today is not safe.”
Unable to return home, the family decided to move to Ethiopia where they could be with other relatives. After a brief few years—during which Dubow was able to catch up on Grades 1 through 4, which he had missed during his time in the refugee camp—tragedy struck again.
A 2001 uprising in Addis Ababa reopened fresh wounds, reminding the family of the same unsafe conditions that they had worked so hard to flee. The decision was made that Dubow would go live with his aunt in Egypt, where he could finish high school and attend university.
Within a span of about eight years, Dubow had thrice been uprooted from his surroundings and forced to seek a safer place to call home. These childhood experiences created a foundation of resilience and a desire to create change—values he would remember later in life.
Today, Dubow sits on Victoria city council and is in charge of making decisions that impact the city’s nearly 100,000-strong population.
I sat down with him on a sunny, albeit chilly, summer afternoon in Centennial Square, days ahead of World Refugee Day on June 20, to understand his journey and how his experiences and identity have led him to advocate for the issues he remains most passionate about to this day.
In many ways, that work began in Cairo, Egypt, when, as an undergraduate student at Cape Breton University, Dubow created the first chapter of an organization through which students helped underprivileged entrepreneurs access bigger markets to sell their wares and helped them with financial literacy.
After graduating, he began working as an advocate for refugees and migrants who travelled through Egypt—a nation that acted as a sort of transit hub for people leaving African countries for Europe and North America—through research work at the Joan Centre for Migration and Refugee Studies at the American University in Cairo.
His years spent in Cairo were also when Dubow embarked on a three-year-long acting career he describes as the best experience of his life.
A group of five Egyptian actors and five refugees from Iraq, Somalia, Eritrea, and Ethiopia came together to create a 45-minute play, replete with songs, to help locals understand why refugees must leave their homes and come to Egypt. The group would tour neighbourhoods, universities, and communities making people laugh, cry, and sing along. They were even featured on CNN.
“The idea was to not... change minds, but try to influence how people perceive things. We all have blind spots, right?” he said. “ Sometimes it's easy to come from a place of fear and… it’s dangerous when we make policy from a place of fear. That type of policy would exclude people and would not serve every resident.”
But fear returned to haunt Dubow again when the 2011 Arab Spring broke out, causing massive protests in Cairo and making it dangerous for a refugee like himself to continue advocacy work. It prompted him to look for a new home.
This time, he’d be leaving the African continent for good.
“My first destination wasn’t Victoria. It was Winnipeg. That’s where I was sponsored,” he said. “Then I decided to do a road trip, go backpacking.”
Dubow’s first instinct was to explore the country he would call home from then on. He had contacts—friends and acquaintances he had met through his advocacy work—living all over Canada who wanted him to come stay with them.
His travels took him through multiple Canadian cities, including Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Regina, and Calgary. It was 2012, and the city was in the midst of celebrating the 100th Calgary Stampede where Somali-Canadian singer-songwriter K’naan was one of the performers—“I gave him a hug!” said Dubow, a longtime fan of the artist.
Dubow’s quest for home ended in Victoria, when he landed a job as a youth advisor at the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society.
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When he first arrived, though, he had to live in a backpackers’ hostel on Pandora Avenue for a month. Finding a place to rent was a difficult ordeal, and not just because of the tight rental market in Victoria. Dubow describes viewing apartment after apartment, in search of one where he would not have to duck to use the shower.
“The struggle is real for a 6’4” tall person,” he laughs.
After becoming an elected city councillor in 2018—the first refugee and second Black person to ever obtain that title in Victoria (after Mifflin Wistar Gibbs in 1866)—Dubow says his priorities have been informed by his experiences.
“The reason why I got into it is [that] politics always impacts us, [whether] we like it or not,” he said. “For me to enter municipal and local government is to use that tool to make change because I was always driven to the betterment of the community... and more importantly, I feel that I owe everything to this country, and I'm grateful.”
When asked which issues he is most passionate about, Dubow highlights two: affordable housing and creating a diverse, inclusive city.
The very first motion Dubow ever brought forth as councillor was one that created a Rental Advisory Committee, the purpose of which is to push council to create more rental housing units, improve housing conditions for tenants, and, in general, advocate for renters.
“In Victoria, 60% of households are rented and a lot of people are struggling in terms of housing,” he said. “So I’m trying to address housing needs and that’s why one of the motions that we brought forward was inclusionary housing, which was demanding more from developers in terms of having some of the units [be] affordable.”
The inclusionary housing policy requires 20% of housing units to be affordable in new developments with at least 60 units.
Despite his public stance on supporting the creation of more housing, Dubow has been known to reject development permit requests that would add more units to the market.
Recently, he was one of two city councillors to oppose a permit application for a building on Cook Street that would increase the number of storeys in a building from 10 to 16, thereby adding 129 new residential units.
Another recent variance application from a developer proposed to demolish a single-family building on McClure Street and in its place erect two buildings, four- and five-storeys tall, to create 15 new residential units. Out of these 15 apartments, the proposal stated that two units would be offered for sale at 15% below market rate in perpetuity for first-time home buyers in the CRD.
Dubow was one of several councillors who referred that proposal back to staff to see if the developer, Aryze Developments, could assuage neighbours’ concerns about the proposal—concerns that were largely based on a lack of sunlight and privacy that could come with having taller buildings on the street.
“The reality is that the cost of a home remains out of reach of low- and moderate-income individuals and families,” he said at a council meeting on June 3. “So the least we could do is get more information to address the concerns of the residents as a lot of the units are out of reach of many people in our community.”
For her part, Mayor Lisa Helps was baffled by the lack of support for this proposal—“I’m almost speechless,” she said—and cited a Capital Daily article to help make the case for why expediting the creation of more housing options is necessary to alleviate the shortages in Victoria. In the end, she was outnumbered and the proposal went back to staff for another lengthy consultation process.
Asked about his own ideas on what it will take to make housing in Victoria more affordable, Dubow points to motions and plans created by city council as a whole.
“There are many tools in the toolbox; there is no way you can address [the housing crisis] in one way,” he adds, pointing to the inclusionary housing policy, the Victoria Housing Strategy, and the rental advisory committee as some of the tools in that box.
Unlike with the housing crisis, there can be no question that Dubow has taken the lead when it comes to spearheading initiatives to create a more diverse and inclusive city.
In the past year, Dubow has led two city initiatives in an effort to get the ball rolling.
The first motion, passed in July 2020, called for Victoria to acknowledge the International Decade for People of African Descent, along with a slew of other tasks like creating an advisory committee to decide how to implement the Decade, creating an internship program for people of African descent, and providing anti-racism training to all city staff.
Another initiative is the ‘Help Make Victoria a More Welcoming City’ project launched by Dubow and Mayor Helps. Part of this project asks members of a Welcoming City Task Force to collect input from BIPOC about how to make the city more inclusive through a series of workshops.
Armed with this feedback, the Task Force will submit a presentation to council this fall with their recommendations for how to build a more welcoming city.
Like most politicians in the public eye, Dubow is not immune to mistakes and criticism. Some of that criticism has, in the past, taken a darker turn.
In December 2020, Dubow made the decision to travel to Somalia. This was the first time he set foot in his country of birth since the age of eight, when he left his home in the middle of the night.
Unfortunately, that decision was made during a global pandemic, when every authority in Canada was discouraging non-essential travel outside the country to limit the spread of COVID-19.
“At that time, I felt it was an essential trip to support my family. I have apologized,” Dubow said. “I sympathize with how my community was feeling. I took full ownership, I apologized and spoke to the media. I have nothing else to add than that.”
He remained steadfast in his resolve to not discuss this incident further, evading questions about whether he ever seriously considered resigning or donating a portion of his salary—both calls that had reverberated across social media in the weeks after the news of his travel first broke.
Dubow did note, however, that he suffered some professional repercussions because of his decision. “I lost the vote for [Destination] Greater Victoria [board] and [the Greater] Victoria Harbour Authority [board],” he said. “I stepped away from those two [positions].”
At a personal level, Dubow received a plethora of messages, emails, comments, and tweets after travelling to Somalia, many of which expressed anger at his decision to travel. Some of those messages, as shared by Dubow on Twitter, were explicitly racist and threatening in nature.
Despite calling out hate and harassment online, Dubow was unwilling to answer questions about these messages, instead choosing to focus on how his constituents respond to the way he votes on city council.
“As a city councillor, you make decisions, or you vote a certain way, and... because of those votes and those policies and decisions that you make, some people will be upset, some people will be annoyed,” he said. “But those are not the majority, because some people don't want change.”
Change is something Dubow has become accustomed to in his life. Now, as a city councillor, he finally has the ability to create, at a policy level, the kinds of changes that he has advocated for since his time in Egypt.
“Now that we’re sitting here,” Dubow remarks, turning away from the wind, “it’s a little bit chilly but [I’m] feeling safe because we’re in Victoria and [I have] this place to call home.”
Correction at 11:00 am on July 12: This article was edited from a previous version that incorrectly stated that Dubow was the first Black person ever elected to Victoria city council. He is the second. It was also edited to reflect that the 100th Calgary Stampede took place in 2012, not 2015.