Natasha Fatah. Photos by Christopher Dale/Torontoist.
CBC Radio’s new summer series Promised Land profiles individuals who were forced to flee their home countries and who chose to come to Canada—and, in many cases, Toronto. Torontoist sat down with host and producer Natasha Fatah, whose own family escaped from Pakistan and moved to Toronto in 2002. She explained what it’s like to ask about the most important, and often most traumatic, experience in her subjects’ lives.
Torontoist: Can you tell me about Promised Land?
Natasha Fatah: The premise behind the show is that it’s all about escape. Because one out of every five Canadians wasn’t born in Canada, and out of those many of them actually had to escape, it wasn’t just a matter of going into an office and signing an immigration form and seeing if you had enough points—they were actually fleeing something, be it an oppressive regime, religious persecution, or ethnic persecution. Or just seeking a better life.
It’s just an incredible array of stories. And these are people that are walking down the street right now, these are the people running your convenience stores, these are the people driving your taxis.
Why do you think it’s important to tell these stories?
I think it’s important for the CBC because we’re meant to reflect what this country is. And more and more of this country is people who aren’t born here and people who have to flee to get here….So I think you don’t have to know about fellow Canadians, but you should want to know. You should want to know what your neighbours had to go through to come here, and know it’s not just a brown face or a yellow face or a black face. There’s a huge amount of personal commitment that people put into coming here, and a huge amount of sacrifice, and I think it just lends itself to understanding—not just about Canada but maybe about the rest of the world.
So what is it like, talking to these people and hearing their stories?
It is amazing. I literally fall in love with every single person that we interview. From someone who was nine years old when they left Vietnam on a boat to Max Eisen, who is a Holocaust survivor who was sixteen years old when he got out of Auschwitz. The show’s only half an hour long and it’s each individual person’s story, but you sit there with them for two to three hours and they’re telling you probably the most important event in their life. Aside from the birth of their kids, probably getting out of Auschwitz, or getting on a boat and dealing with pirates, or busting out of prison to get on a bread truck to get to Kenya to finally come to Canada—that changes your life. I have so much respect for these people; I have so much affection for them. It has been so eye-opening.
A couple of times we’ve had to stop recording because I’ve started crying. This is so deeply emotional, this stuff that we’re talking about with these folks, that you just want to handle it so gently. I’ve never felt like this before—I’ve made lots of documentaries before, but I want to honour these people. That’s what I feel. It’s a very different feeling. It’s not like, “I want to get to the bottom of this.” I want their approval in a way that I’ve never felt before, too. After every episode goes to air I usually get an email back from the interviewees and they say, “Oh, great story, I love it, I love it!” And I’m thinking, oh thank God! And I write back and I say, “Honestly I’ve been waiting all day for your email because I’m dying here of anticipation.”
Their approval means a lot to me because I really feel these people are my friends now. I have so much love for them, I have so much respect for them. I can’t believe what people do to get here, how strong they are. And some people are broken, too, because of the experience—like they can’t talk about the experience without crying. And that’s really tough, sitting there, doing the interview and asking them, “You know the worst thing you ever went through in your life? Do you mind telling me all about it, and in as much detail as possible?” And then in the middle of it you’re crying because it’s so painful a scene of torture that they’re describing, or it’s so painful the loss of their family.
I spoke to this woman from Honduras—just an amazing woman. Her husband was an activist. He applied for refugee status in Canada, and Canada said no. They said, “You can’t prove that you’re in danger in Honduras.” A few months later he’s dead—the Honduras government has killed him. Now this woman has to find a way to get herself and her three children out because they’re on the hit list. Can you imagine a woman, and she must have been in her early twenties, with her three little babies having to manage that? You lose your husband that way—and Canada said no, that’s why he’s dead. That’s one of the reasons why he’s dead. Who knows how different their lives would have been if Canada had said yes?
How are you dealing with hearing these stories, like almost being handed these very heavy things?
The first one we did was Vietnam. We spent a lot of time on the “Escape from Vietnam” episode [with the Vu family], and I dreamt about it every night. And their big moment of this escape is getting on a boat, getting out into the ocean, and being attacked by pirates. At least three nights I had nightmares about being attacked by pirates. I kept dreaming that I was out on this boat, with the Vus, in the middle of the ocean, and the pirates were coming to attack our boat. I’ve dreamt about almost everybody I’ve interviewed, and that sounds so creepy and crazy, but it’s absolutely true. Whatever that cold distance you’re supposed to have as a journalist, I don’t feel that distance. I love these people, so much. Once the show goes off the air, I still want to know what they’re doing, I hope they’re well. I hope that we keep in touch. I want to have them all over for dinner. I really, really love them.
Can you tell me more about what you’re taking from these interviews?
I guess what I’ve learned the most is that this policy of more or less having open doors for people from all over the world—that’s what defines Canada. It really is this decision we’ve made as a nation to say, “If you’re being oppressed somewhere else we will open our doors to you. You can come and have a new life here.” And again I bring up the example of Max Eisen, who survived the Holocaust—that guy came here with nothing, with nothing. With no family! His parents, his grandparents, uncles and aunts, and his younger sister, all killed in Auschwitz. That guy comes here with nothing and has built a life. Where else in the world can you do that? Anywhere else in the world he would have been destined to be a pauper. For me, now, I know what it means to be a Canadian. I think health care [and] multiculturalism were all the safety answers, but now I know this is what makes Canada so great.
Do a lot of [the refugees you've interviewed] come to Toronto?
Yeah, they do. Most are actually based here in Toronto. We have a couple people in Calgary and Windsor, but let’s face it—it’s Toronto, it’s the best city in the country, maybe the best city in the world. It’s a very open society here in Toronto, you can be who you are, it’s very accepting; you have huge networks of communities already built in here. And it’s the economic hub of the country, too. If you’re coming here with very little money in your pocket and you need to catch a break, you’re going to come to a big city like Toronto. And it’s just easier. People do feel isolated. As much as you’re grateful for being here, no one speaks your language, no one looks like you, no one talks like you out in, like, rural Saskatchewan or in Nova Scotia. But if you come here you’ll find your community and you’ll build more communities by becoming a Canadian.
You know what the great thing about Toronto is? It’s that every now and then it affords me the luxury of forgetting that I’m a visible minority. Because anywhere else I go—it’s not that I’m uncomfortable but I’m certainly aware of it—but in a place as diverse and as accepting as Toronto, sometimes I can actually forget. And I don’t have to think of myself as a brown girl. I can just be me and be judged for who I am and what I believe in and be disliked or liked based on the merits of my character, not the colour of my skin. And maybe that’s a naive hope, but that’s one of the things I love about this city.
Promised Land airs on CBC Radio One on Mondays at 7:30 p.m. and Fridays at 9:30 a.m.; new episodes are published online late every Monday night. Torontoist’s own series of profiles of Toronto immigrants will begin in August.