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Natasha Fatah on Keeping CBC’s Promised Land

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.


  • http://undefined rek

    This needs to be a TV series.
    “it’s the best city in the country, maybe the best city in the world”
    I think I’ve got my entry for the city slogan contest…

  • http://undefined rich1299

    I’ll have to check this out, sounds very interesting. For a couple of years I had a summer job at Immigration at the airport, one of my duties was doing the initial interview with refugees who had arrived with no documentation. I was supposed to get just the basics of how they got here but I couldn’t help asking more questions because so often I was being told incredible stories of oppression, hardship and struggle and their cunning and ingenious ways of getting to Canada and the immense effort they put into it usually working incredibly hard for long times and giving up everything they owned to secure passage to Canada, they had everything they owned in the world on them, no luggage, no money, maybe some photographs and letters from loved ones but that was about it. I was so impressed with what these people had to do and to go through to get to Canada that I was convinced they’d make the best possible sort of new Canadians, clever ones with drive and ingenuity and devotion and gratitude to their new country.
    At the time there was lots of talk from right wingers about these people being “illegal refugees” and that they should be shipped back on the next available flight to where ever they came from. Actually meeting these people and talking to them made me realize that the right wingers who wanted to ship them back had no idea of how lucky we were to have such people choose Canada, I would’ve been honoured for most of them to be my neighbour. Of course there were a few that I thought should’ve been sent straight back or sent to jail, one in particular still stands out to this day, he said he was enslaved by a group of criminals in his home country yet it quickly became obvious that he was the one enslaving others and likely knew that he’d never be admitted in any honest way so was lying his ass off, I don’t know what happened to him, I’m confident his refugee claim was rejected since I made notes in his file of every reason I had to believe he had been enslaving people back in his homeland, mind you he arrived with lots of gold jewelry, almost all legitimate undocumented refugees had little or no money having spent massive sums to get here, anyways this guy had enough money that he might’ve been able to afford some fancy lawyer who might have got him in, who knows, our refugee system often works against those in real need while looking the other way for those with money.
    There were also those who had used smugglers which was easy to spot since they all gave the same song and dance which was really unneccessary since once we got past what they were told to say and do it became obvious they were legitimate refugees in need of protection, their only way here though was through making use of a people smuggler and the smugglers were paid extremely large amounts of money, $20,000 to $40,000 US was common, they had to work and save for years and sell everything they owned to come up with the money to escape their homeland, the sad thing is if they knew the truth and the way things really worked they could’ve made it here on their own without the aid of smugglers, mind you getting out from some countries probably did require “professional” help. One family was told by their smuggler they would have better luck in Canada if they pretended to be wealthier than they really were so they borrowed some fancy clothes and make up and at some fancy place had photographs taken of themselves but it ended up looking like a combination of glamour shots and halloween since these were people who had obviously worked extremely hard at physical labour, their hands were thickly calloused, their bodies lean and muscular, they looked extremely out of place in the fancy high class clothes they were wearing in the photos. I caught onto them when searching a bag they had with them I found a couple of photographs that were genuine and asked them about the differences between the two, luckily the father fessed up about the glamour shots type photos and the advice from their smuggler otherwise the inconsistencies could have worked against them when their case went before the IRB.
    My favourite and most memorable new Canadians were refugees for sure but arrived as two individual standard type immigrants. They were two middle aged men from Iran and it was obvious from watching them interact with each other, the way they bickered and gestured towards each other that they were a couple that had been together for a very long time. I didn’t say anything, it wasn’t my place to out them after all but when I asked about family they both tensed up and looked extremely nervous before one said “We are our own little family” I smiled, nodded and said I understood completely and then they both had huge smiles and their relief was obvious. I helped them fill out the remaining forms in way that made it clear to anyone looking at the forms later on that these two men belonged together. When we were all finished and I said my usual line “Congratulations, you are now landed Canadians” their joy and excitment was overwhelming, their smiles were huge and we shook hands several times as they thanked me. I can only imagine what it must have been like for them to find each other and fall in love in such a country as Iran where they hang people for being gay and then to come to Canada where they could live freely and openly as a gay couple no longer having to hide their love from everyone.
    There were lots of wonderful moments when I said those words they were so desperate to hear, “Congratulations you are now landed Canadians” that was by far the best part of that job. Many of the wealthy immigrants seemed like they couldn’t care less and that I was boring them but for those who were documented refugees (already approved, I was just finalizing their paper work) or for whom becoming Canadian represented a long time wish fulfilled it was a very different story filled with much happiness.
    Sorry for such a long post, reading this story brought back a lot of memories about my own experiences talking to refugees and immigrants all hoping for a better life here in Canada. That summer job sure was an eye opener and completely changed the way I saw refugees and immigrants to Canada as well as both the good and bad of our immigration system.

  • http://undefined Celtic Eric

    Natasha didn’t move to Toronto in 2002. Both Natasha and her father hosted television shows in Toronto in 1996:
    Perhaps the article refers to some member of her extended family?