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

Man sentenced for stealing pricey ring from Salmon Arm pawn shop

Accused vows to change criminal history through beating addictions

Anxiety, depression among student priorities for Sicamous school wellness centre

Initiative provides comfortable space to care for students at Eagle River Secondary

Shuswap woman creates stress-reducing cuffs for Alzheimer’s patients

Personal connection to disease adds meaning to endeavour

WEB POLL: Would you like to see a new highway built between B.C. and Central Alberta?

Building another highway through the mountains would shave 95 km from Kamloops to Red Deer

Okanagan divers ready to take on 2020 B.C. Winter Games

The athletes have been training four days a week

Galchenyuk nets shootout winner as Wild edge Canucks 4-3

Vancouver tied with Calgary for second spot in NHL’s Pacific Division

B.C.’s soda drink tax will help kids lose weight, improve health, says doctor

Dr. Tom Warshawski says studies show sugary drinks contribute to obesity

A&W employees in Ladysmith get all-inclusive vacation for 10 years of service

Kelly Frenchy, Katherine Aleck, and Muriel Jack are headed on all-expenses-paid vacations

B.C. mom’s complaint about ‘R word’ in children’s ministry email sparks review

In 2020, the ‘R’ word shouldn’t be used, Sue Robins says

Askew Tennis Centre draws 14 teams for mixed doubles tourney

Event at new facility hosted competitors from throughout Okanagan

B.C., federal ministers plead for meeting Wet’suwet’en dissidents

Scott Fraser, Carolyn Bennett says they can be in Smithers Thursday

EDITORIAL: Revisiting cannabis regulations

Recent retail license application has brought up concerns about present policy in Summerland

Guidelines regulate Summerland cannabis stores

The municipality’s policy, 300.6 establishes the 50-metre buffer zone around schools and parks

Most Read