EIGHTEEN YEARS LATER, Margaret Lansana still remembers the scene at the Victoria airport on that chilly, very un-African day.
Drums were pounding, flowers were thrust in her arms, a crowd of 75 strangers cheered — and there, leaping over a barrier as though it wasn’t even there, was Mustapha, the son she hadn’t seen for six long, war-torn years.
It had taken two years for Mustapha and a committee drawn from four churches — St. George’s Anglican, St. Mary’s Anglican, Cadboro Bay United and Emmanuel Baptist — to extract the refugees from Sierra Leone, a west African nation ravaged by a decade-long, particularly brutal civil war in which mutilation and amputation had been used as weapons of terror.
The rebels had killed Margaret’s physician husband in 1996, and had taken her second-oldest son, who was never seen again. Her parents had died in the war, as had other family members. Mustapha had been lucky that he had won a scholarship to Metchosin’s Pearson College in 1997.
It was he who began the push to bring his family here.
The Lansanas’ arrival was front page news in January 2003. The family shivered while posing for a Times Colonist photo that week before dashing back into their Cridge Centre apartment where, the accompanying story said, “the thermostat is raised to a heat level a little more like Africa than Vancouver Island.”
The TC has published a lot of stories like that over the decades, tales of dazed refugees from Hungary, or Vietnam, or Kosovo, or Syria landing in our leafy oasis. We don’t always provide an epilogue, though.
So, it seemed like a good idea to check in when word filtered down that Margaret had retired from Baptist Housing this week, and that the same people who welcomed her in 2003 had decided to gather on Zoom today to celebrate the family’s success.
Here’s where they’re at: Mustapha is an engineer for a tech firm in Ottawa. Nabieu teaches high school in the Lower Mainland. Moinya works there, too, as a nurse. Sudie is a nurse at the Jubilee.
Margaret made sure the younger ones all got through Pacific Christian School, though it wasn’t easy doing so as a single mom. She had been a teacher in Sierra Leone, the assistant head of a school, but here she went to Camosun College to train as a health-care assistant. She then put her head down and went to work, at one point holding down jobs at three care homes.
“It was not easy,” she said Friday.
“I don’t know how I did it.”
“I had no life. I was working days, nights, evenings, just to make ends meet.”
She recalls one day when, preparing for a shift at Mount St. Mary’s, she opened the curtains and saw a challenge she had never encountered before. In tears, she called her employer: “I can’t come in. I don’t know how to walk in the snow.”
No problem, they replied.
Sometimes, it all felt too hard. “The people were new. The culture was new.”
But she had her faith and her friends. Those church-based committee members? “After 18 years, they are still there,” she says. They are her family. “There are still good people out there,” she says. “God is still working in our lives.”
Mustapha speaks in similar terms. “We went through a lot, but our faith has held us together.” For him, today’s online gathering isn’t just a time to honour his mother, but those who helped bring the Lansanas to Canada.
“It’s really a celebration of the generosity that this group has extended to my family.”
He singles out Dr. Sydney Sparling and her husband Jim, strangers who took him in when he was at Pearson and had nowhere to go for the Christmas holidays. It was they whom he approached 20 years ago after hearing the Canadian government was prepared to take in families like his, and who became integral to the committee.
Sparling, meanwhile, is impressed by Margaret: “She is very strong. She has faithfully cared for Victoria’s most vulnerable. She is grateful. She contributes in spite of life’s challenges.”
Margaret allows that today she actually feels like a hero. “It has been a long journey.”