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

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.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

International Women’s Day is March 8. (Internationalwomensday.com)
International Women’s Day 2021: #choosetochallenge

International Women’s Day is marked annually on March 8

Celebrate women in leadership, March 8, International Women’s Day 2021 (Unsplash)
EDITORIAL: International Women’s Day 2021 shines spotlight on achievements, ongoing inequities

COVID-19 increased gender-based violence, economic stress, the burden of care giving for women

Amarjit Khakh of Williams Lake. (Photo submitted)
INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY 2021: Amarjit Khakh

Kindness and giving, key to full life

Sierra William (left) with her grandmother Eileen William. (Roger William photo)
INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY 2021: Sierra William

Xeni Gwet’in woman finds strength in tradition

Cynthia English (Photo submitted)
INTERNATIONL WOMEN’S DAY 2021: Cynthia English

Cynthia English, 30, has been working in the logging industry for several years

Elvira D’Angelo, 92, waits to receive her COVID-19 vaccination shot at a clinic in Montreal, Sunday, March 7, 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
‘It’s been a good week’: Tam hopeful on vaccines as pandemic anniversary nears

Tam says the addition of two new vaccines will help Canadians get immunized faster

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Const. Allan Young. Photo: Abbotsford Police Department
Manslaughter charge laid in Nelson death of Abbotsford police officer

Allan Young died after an incident in downtown Nelson last summer

(The Canadian Press)
‘Worse than Sept. 11, SARS and financial crisis combined’: Tourism industry in crisis

Travel services saw the biggest drop in active businesses with 31 per cent fewer firms operating

Pictures and notes in from friends and classmates make up a memorial in support and memory of Aubrey Berry, 4, and her sister Chloe, 6, during a vigil held at Willows Beach in Oak Bay, B.C., on December 30, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Mother of slain daughters supports recent changes to Canada’s Divorce Act

Sarah Cotton-Elliott said she believed her children took a back seat to arranging equal parenting

Victoria man Brett Andersen is asking for people’s help to secure him one of eight free tickets to the moon. (Screenshot/@brettandersen Instagram)
Victoria man wants your help securing a free ticket to the moon

Japanese billionaire offering eight people a trip to the moon

The Conservation Officers Service is warning aquarium users after invasive and potentially destructive mussels were found in moss balls from a pet store. (BC Conservation Officers Service/Facebook)
Aquarium users in B.C. warned after invasive mussels found at pet store

Conservation officers were told the mussels were found in a moss ball from a Terrace pet store.

Hockey hall-of-fame legend Wayne Gretzky, right, watches the casket of his father, Walter Gretzky, as it is carried from the church during a funeral service in Brantford, Ont., Saturday, March 6, 2021. HE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Walter Gretzky remembered as a man with a ‘heart of gold’ at funeral

The famous hockey father died Thursday at age 82 after battling Parkinson’s disease

Most Read