Samantha’s childhood story plays like an episode from a dramatic TV series, but there is no fiction to this tale. At the age of 12 Samantha’s mother was killed for standing up for the rights of indigenous people in Southeast Asia. Her parents were driving her sister to school when they were ambushed by three gunmen. Her father and sister managed to flee the scene unharmed. Wanted by the government for being a human rights activist as well, Samantha’s father was forced into hiding to escape the same fate as his wife.
For six months, Samantha and her two sisters were cared for by her cousins. While dealing with the grief of the loss of their mother and the uncertainty of their father’s life, their sense of security and freedom disappeared. Samantha had to quickly shift into a parental role as she was the oldest child. After the threats escalated into the possible kidnapping of Samantha and her sisters, her father made the decision to start a new life in a new country. Canada was at the top of the list.
In March 2007, Samantha and her family came to Victoria on a tourist visa and then claimed political refugee status as they feared for their lives back home. Samantha recalls instantly feeling safe once she entered the city. How amazing it was to walk the streets without looking over her shoulder.
Just 13 at the time and entering Grade 8, Samantha was insecure about her English skills, even though she was taught the language in elementary school and spoke it at home. She felt like an outsider and was shy to speak her mind in school, in spite of her extroverted personality. She found it hard to fit in. She was looking for a group to call her own − a community of youth that could relate to her past, understand the challenges she faced as a newcomer, and help her transition into a new culture.
Samantha found such a place at the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society (VIRCS) and in the Enable Program, funded by United Way. Her first introduction in Grade 10 was through the Youth Strides summer camp. Samantha was instantly hooked. Friendships blossomed and her confidence soared. She came out of her shell and gained a support network of youth with similar shared experiences. Next, she joined a theatre project for newcomer youth to explore issues of transition. She also participated in life skills training including how to apply for a job and what to do during an interview.
“VIRCS is a launching pad for immigrant youth. It allows you to express yourself and share common experiences with others,” says Samantha. “It builds connections and links hands together knowing that you can support each other.”
Now 18 and a biology student at University of Victoria, Samantha hopes to become a doctor, like her father. Samantha is stronger than ever and comfortable with who she is and what she can offer the world.
Well on her way to becoming a Canadian citizen, Samantha shares advice with other refugees: “It’s hard to do it alone so don’t be shy. Step out of your comfort zone to get the support you need. Be courageous and immerse yourself in the culture, explore your personal traumas and share them with others because they will listen.”