Somali refugee takes amazing road from refugee camps to B.C. city council

Sharmarke Dubow, 35, who was born on Christmas Day, can’t stop smiling or talking since being elected

It was one of the happiest days of his life, but Sharmarke Dubow says he was paralyzed with emotion the day he was sworn in as a member of Victoria city council.

Dubow said he couldn’t smile and his words were a barely audible mumble as he reflected back on his journey from Somalia’s civil war to a refugee camp in Kenya and finally to Victoria City Hall.

Now, Dubow, 35, who was born on Christmas Day, can’t stop smiling or talking.

He became a Canadian citizen on July 1, 2017, Canada’s 150th anniversary, and was elected to city council in November. It was the first time he’d voted, anywhere.

“I was holding myself to cry,” he said in a recent interview. “The reason why I was not smiling is there were so many emotions. I could not believe to be the voice for people in Victoria and to represent them.”

Dubow is six-foot-four and thinly built. He smiles broadly and laughs joyously as he retraces his journey from a refugee camp to city council at a downtown coffee shop.

He gets up to hug people who offer him their best wishes and gushes about meeting Canadian figure skating icons Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir earlier in the day at a Salvation Army Christmas fundraising event.

“Tessa told me I should write a book,” said Dubow.

He said Canada gave him a home and his election to council gives him the chance to give back.

READ MORE: Former Somali refugee casts first-ever ballot and wins a Victoria city council seat in same election

“When I became a Canadian citizen I felt I have a home, I have rights and responsibilities,” said Dubow. “It was all about me having a second chance at life, belonging to a country and being a proud Canadian. But when I’m elected, it’s not about me. It’s holding a huge responsibility and knowing I have a huge curve of learning.”

He was eight years old when his mother put him and his sister on a boat fleeing strife in Somalia. Dubow said they crossed the Indian Ocean by moonlight and landed at Mombasa, Kenya, where he lived in a tent and camp for five years with hundreds of others.

“I remember my mother putting two jackets, two trousers in a case and telling me to hold my sister’s hand. I remember looking back at my mother,” said Dubow, whose mother was able to join them in the camp after a later boat voyage.

Dubow said he built a bed of bamboo sticks and recalled camp life being one of daily struggles and of frightened people looking for their next meal and trying to make a living. He said the United Nations stepped in to ensure the camp was permitted to exist.

Dubow said his life as a refugee and stateless person influenced him to become an advocate for human rights across Africa and ultimately brought him to Canada where he took a job at the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society.

“In Kenya, I was in a camp. In Ethiopia I was undocumented, meaning I was not registered under the United Nations Human Rights Commission or the Ethiopian government,” he said. “In Egypt I was a refugee. I wasn’t in a camp but I was a refugee under the UN HRC. They never gave me a chance to become a citizen and be part of the society.”

Dubow said he was an outsider without rights, until he came to Canada in 2012.

“Canada gave me that chance,” he said. “Victoria lifted me up. People have lifted me up and given me that chance.”

Dubow said Canada gave him a safe home after 20 years of being homeless.

“We have a system that works, that will protect my rights regardless of my sexuality, my race, my background,” he said. “I am able to sleep and not worry about bullets coming through my wall.”

Dubow said it may sound like a contradiction, but despite having spent much of his young life in a refugee camp, one of his favourite things to do in Canada is pitch a tent and sit around a campfire.

“Living in Canada, and camping for leisure, for a date, it’s a different lifestyle brother,” he said. “When you wake up, all the grass is high and it reflects the sun, and sometimes I don’t want it to, but it takes me back and reminds me of who I am.”

Dubow said he is still a newcomer to the workings of municipal politics. After years of challenging governments on refugee issues, he wants to use his new position as an elected councillor to give back and bring people together.

“The best way is having tea and sitting with people from all walks of life.”

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Couple home safe after COVID-19 lockdown in Peru

Cortney Pitts and Maxime Patenaude “won the lottery” to get to come home from Peru.

Back in print

We are pleased to announce that the April 9 issue of the Pioneer will be available in print.

Foodbanking in the time of COVID-19

Local food bank needs are high, but Lawrie Mack said: “there is hope to counter the gloom.”

‘An extra $220 every 90 days’: B.C. patients pay more dispensing fees due to prescription limits

Kelowna woman says it’s outrageous to charge for refills every 30 days

‘Hold our line’: 29 new cases of COVID-19 announced in B.C.

Saturday’s number of new cases marks the lowest in weeks.

Two inmates found positive for COVID-19 at federal prison in B.C.; other tests pending

15 staff self-isolating waiting results, refusal to work notice sent, says correctional officer

Critic, workers’ group ‘disappointed’ Trudeau chose Amazon to distribute PPE

Amazon Canada said in an email to The Canadian Press that it is working with Canada Post, Purolator

Full World COVID-19 update: National Guard collect ventilators in New York; Spain, Italy improve

Comprehensive coronavirus update with news from around the world.

Two people fined after B.C. police spot online ads re-selling 5,000 surgical, N95 masks

Police confiscated the masks, being sold at inflated prices, and now working with Fraser Health

General exposure to public low after inmate tests positive for COVID-19: Interior Health

The Okanagan Correctional Centre inmate is receiving appropriate care

Sex workers face new risks during COVID-19 pandemic

‘Desperation has kicked in’ for vulnerable, undocumented workers unable to access help

Unclear if Cowichan couple refusing to self-isolate will face penalty

No fines or charges have been laid to date, including Cowichan couple who won’t self isolate

Most Read