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Unique project helps stateless Tibetans find homes in Canada

January 27, 2014

January 25, 2014 - When Tenzin Zeden arrived in Toronto on Nov. 29, she was welcomed by members of the Tibetan community, shockingly cold weather, and, for the first time in her life, a chance at citizenship of her own.

Zeden, 30, has been stateless since she was born. Her family is originally from Tibet, but fled as refugees in the early 1960s. As a result, she grew up in north-eastern India and worked as a nurse in Delhi for six years, but never held Indian citizenship.

Now, through a unique agreement with the Canadian government, she is one of almost 1,000 displaced Tibetans who are expected to resettle in Canada before the spring of 2016. Ten more are scheduled to arrive in Toronto on Saturday.

"This is the very first of this kind of project. It’s a whole new direction in how immigration or refugees or sponsorships happen and work," Nima Dorjee, the director of the Project Tibet Society, said. The Project Tibet Society was founded to facilitate the resettlements in Canada.

Displaced or stateless people, like Zeden, do not fall under the traditional definition of refugee. Refugees in Canada must demonstrate a fear of persecution in their original country. This is impossible for somebody who has spent their entire life away from persecution but is still without citizenship.

For Zeden, the loophole came in the form of a little-used section of the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. "(This section is) available for groups of people who act like refugees, who function like refugees, who are otherwise like a refugee, but do not fit under the narrow definition of a conventional refugee," Dorjee said.

Section 25.2 of the act allowed Jason Kenney, the former Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, to create a temporary public policy in March 2011 and offer Canadian visas to up to 1,000 stateless Tibetans on the condition that the resettlements be privately sponsored.

A statement to CTV News from the office of the Chris Alexander, the current Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, said "special measures" were developed to allow this process.

"This is done at no additional cost to Canadians because initial settlement costs, including housing, are guaranteed by sponsors," the statement added.

After the agreement was signed in 2011, it took another two-and-a-half years to work out the details. In the Arunachal Pradesh region of India -- which includes five Tibetan refugee settlements and almost 8,000 people -- there were 6,800 applicants for the prized Canadian visas.

The long applicant list was narrowed down through interviews and "a lottery," said Dorjee. Participants were also screened on "medical, criminality, and security grounds," said the statement from Alexander’s office.

As the Tibetans prepared themselves in India, local chapters of the Project Tibet society raised donations and found housing and sponsors to guide the newcomers through their first year in Canada.

"The two most important things that we’ve found through the first group that arrived is that being able to provide them with a place to stay is key, and (so is) trying to look for jobs for these people," Tsering Wangyal, a volunteer with the Toronto chapter of Project Tibet Society, said.

In Toronto, newcomers spend their first month in a reception centre, a small pastel house in Etobicoke with a framed photo of the Dalai Lama in the front entrance. The house accommodates up to 10 newcomers, but is empty now, waiting for Saturday’s arrivals. All seven members of the first group have moved out to live with sponsors or friends.

They’ve also all found employment at places like Tim Hortons, Second Cup, and a Tibetan restaurant. Zeden is working in the food court at Humber College.

"It’s good," she said. "I get to interact with many students and get to know the language and their accents."

Her hope is to continue working there until she can raise the money to go to school and become a registered nurse in Canada. She is eager to one day return to "serving and caring for patients and clients."

In the meantime, she is grateful to have found work. She’s heard that some of her friends who settled in Ottawa haven’t been so lucky, and attributes her success to Toronto’s large Tibetan community, which has helped her find work and friends.

And she’s hoping to return the favour. She says she plans to greet the newcomers on Saturday, just as she was welcomed almost two months ago.

"If they need any help, we will help them," she said.

Her first piece of advice: dress warmly.
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