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Alumni Interviews: Seeing the best in humanity

Photo of: Salvator CusimanoAfter graduating from U of T, Salvator Cusimano (BA 2012) completed a 10-week internship at the United Nations headquarters in New York and his master’s degree in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies at Oxford University. He returned to Toronto to work for Romero House, building his understanding of refugee protection. Currently, he works as a protection assistant for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malta, which aims to protect the fundamental rights of refugees in the area.

What kind of work do you do as a protection assistant?

‘Protection’ means ensuring that the fundamental human rights of refugees are respected  especially the right to not be returned home after claiming asylum, the right to liberty and the right to security. As a protection assistant, my job is to monitor respect for these rights in Malta by meeting and interviewing refugees in detention centres, open reception centres and in the community. My work “on the ground” feeds into the advocacy we do as an office with the government of Malta by providing evidence for the positions we take. Of course, an important part of my work is to try to solve the problems individual refugees are facing by bringing up their specific cases with government counterparts and in partnership with NGOs.

How did your time at U of T influence the work you do now?

One of the most important reasons why I am where I am today is because I travelled to Uganda through the Students for Development Program between my third and fourth years. I received a couple of scholarships to do a research project on post-conflict reconstruction in Uganda, especially concerning the war’s effect on children and the legacy of the massive human displacement that took place. My partner on that project and I quickly managed to reach really deeply into Uganda’s society and politics. Seeing these issues up-close and from the perspective of those affected helped me to find my way towards refugee protection and human rights advocacy as a vocation.

But just as importantly, it was something of a struggle to process everything that I had seen and heard in Uganda from so many people who had been so affected by war. Working through all of that during our time on the ground and the period afterwards equipped me with the emotional resources I’ve needed to do the work I do.

What are the most challenging and rewarding aspects of your work?

A challenge is that it can take time often many years for change to happen; sometimes you don’t see the immediate impact of your work on a systemic level. But I have learned from people who’ve been working in this field in Malta for many years that things have already changed for the better. The most rewarding part of the work is when I have the chance to join people in their homes whether that is an apartment or a small room in a reception centre and sit for a few hours, reliving some of their darkest experiences and hearing about their hopes for the future. Having the chance to get to know amazing people and learn from their resiliency is the reason I love what I do.

How has working with refugees influenced your life?

I have become a lot more optimistic about humanity than I used to be. Although people often think about refugees acting out of fear after confronting the worst aspects of humanity war and torture, for example my experience is that their stories are more often about love, courage, rebirth and the will to live after tragedy.

What are the most prominent barriers currently facing refugees around the world?

The biggest barriers facing refugees are the laws, policies and practices enacted by states to prevent people from legally migrating to safety. Excessively strict border controls and the criminalization of migration means that people fleeing human rights abuses must place themselves in harm’s way once again at sea, in deserts, and at the hands of smugglers and corrupt police officers rather than buying a budget airline ticket like your average backpacking tourist would.

What do you think can be done to aid the refugee crisis in Europe?

First of all, I think that it’s important to remember that the European ‘crisis’ pales in comparison to what’s happening in a country like Lebanon, where some 25 per cent of its population are Syrian refugees, or Kenya, which holds the world’s largest refugee camp, Dadaab. That’s why my personal opinion is that the whole world not just Europe, but Canada, the USA and many other countries which have long failed to respond effectively to this problem needs to plan a response that begins in the countries refugees are passing through on their way to Europe. That means going into refugee camps and offering people protection and resettlement on the spot so that they don’t have to make a dangerous journey. This would also be better for European governments, who would be able to take more control over the manner in which people are arriving and also share more equitably the number of refugees each state welcomes.

How can students and the U of T community provide their support for refugees? 

Start locally. There are lots of great organizations in Toronto that could use help with volunteering and other forms of support, and most of these are within a short streetcar ride from U of T. If you have a spare room in your house, or if you rent out a property that you own, let some of these organizations know about it and offer to rent it out on a priority basis to refugees, who face many barriers when trying to access housing in Toronto. Furthermore, with the commitments Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made to welcome more Syrian refugees, there will be a lot of opportunities to participate in their resettlement. You and your friends, family, church, office and whoever else you associate with could raise money to sponsor a refugee. Finally, write to your MP whenever you get a chance to let them know that you care about Canada welcoming refugees.