Every day, refugees flee their homes, escaping all manner of dangers, seeking safety and hope around the world. And the world responds in a myriad of ways. Some people respond with fear, anger and even violence, seeing refugees as an enemy, coming only to create chaos and destruction and to steal what is “ours” – the ultimate in othering. Some people respond with love, opening their wallets, their businesses, their home and their hearts to asylum seekers. And some, like Elizabeth Bromstein and her family, choose to take a walk.
I’m not just talking about a stroll around the block. Elizabeth is the founder of Walk Like a Refugee: a fundraising event that gives people the chance to experience what refugees experience around the world. Because walking is the refugee’s main form of transportation, for thousands of kilometers, under the harshest conditions, all in an effort to find something better, and safer, than the place they’re leaving.
On May 8th, Elizabeth, her partner David, and their daughter Kismet, will walk from Toronto to Niagara Falls for the second time. Their hope is to raise funds and awareness for the global refugee crisis and for their not-for-profit The Westside Refugee Response. In 2016 they were able to bring one Syrian family over, using the money they raised from their first walk, and now they are working on helping a second family get the same chance.
From their website: “Every day, people in countries ravaged by war and disaster leave their homes, and never go back. Many of these people walk for days or weeks in search of safety. Walk Like a Refugee recreates that experience on a small scale — a family walking out of their house in downtown Toronto, and 135 km from that house to Niagara Falls.”
I’m so inspired by Elizabeth’s passion and dedication not only to her walk, but to helping refugees in general. You’ll see what I mean in our interview below.
How did you get involved with the work you currently do?
One day I was scrolling my social media feed and I came across the image of a dead child lying on a beach. He was three years old and his name was Alan Kurdi. He died when a rubber dinghy made that was made for 8 people, but that was carrying 16 Syrian refugees trying to get to Europe, capsized off the coast of Turkey. Alan’s little body reminded me so much of my own toddler, and I couldn’t get the image out of my mind. I posted on Facebook about how devastating the situation was, and a friend of mine pointed me towards Lifeline Syria. From there I learned about Canada’s incredible private sponsorship program, through which citizens can take responsibility for settling refugees – people who are complete strangers to us – in Canada. It’s an amazing program. My involvement kind of snowballed from there. I now volunteer at a shelter for asylum seekers and have become an outspoken advocate for displaced people.
What are the biggest challenges/setbacks you’ve had to face?
My biggest challenge is getting the media to pay attention to us. We need to reach outside of our immediate network, and get more interest. But the general public is sick and tired of refugees. It’s not a sexy news topic anymore. So, it can be more difficult to get people involved and hold their attention. They think that since Canada took in a few thousand people, it’s over. But there are 65 million displaced people in the world – 65 MILLION – and 22.5 million of them are refugees. Our government has also slowed down their processing times to a snail’s pace. I wish they would speed up. I wish everyone cared all the time, and not just for a few months in 2015.
What are some of the successes (big or small) you’ve had?
All my successes are small. We welcomed the first family we sponsored over a year ago, and though that’s only three people (four now. They had a baby!) it took a crazy amount of effort to get them here. But they are here, and they are settled and we adore them. They’re self-sufficient and aren’t costing anyone anything – by which I mean the government or taxpayer (which is the point of the private sponsorship program). They’ve set up their own catering business, have been in all kinds of media, and have even catered City Hall. I’d say that’s a success.
If you had one wish to help make the world a better place, what would it be?
Aside from ridiculous answers like “I wish everyone could just get along”? I wish everyone who hasn’t already would take a step back and ask themselves how they can make a difference in the world, then turn off Netflix or whatever, and just go do it. Liking and sharing things on social media isn’t enough (but contrary to what some people say, it is something. I rely on my social media network to get the word out and gather donations, and it works). Get involved with something that is bigger than you. It will change everything about how you see the world. I wish we could make volunteering mandatory for everyone to be a part of a functioning society (but you know, without having to live in the sort of government-controlled dictatorship that would require).
Who inspires you?
A lot of people inspire me. My friend Chris who is on the board of MSF Canada and does super badass shit, like fly into war zones to distribute aid, inspires me. And Karen Francis, the Executive Director of Matthew House, a shelter system for asylum seekers in Toronto, inspires me. She is always friendly, and warm, and good spirited, despite having a window into the worst side of humanity. And her ability to connect with people is amazing.
If you could pick one charitable organization to ask our readers to donate to or volunteer with, which would it be?
Please donate to our walk. You can learn all about the people we’re walking to help on our website. Anything we raise above our goal will be donated to Matthew House. They often need volunteers too. But I don’t care what you do as long as you find something that moves you and donate your time to it. Live your values.
Please consider donating to Walk Like a Refugee, and taking Elizabeth’s advice and finding something that inspires you to help make the world a better place. Check out the Walk Like a Refugee website to learn more about Elizabeth, her family and the work they do. If you’re moved to donate, you can do so here. If you’d like to join their walk, reach out to Elizabeth via email or social media today!