Filmmaker Monika Delmos creates a touching portrait of two teenage refugees as they navigate life in Toronto and undergo permanent-residency processing. Their stories are harrowing. Sallieu Dainkeh, 16, is from war-stricken Sierra Leone, where he witnessed rebels kill his mother. Then there’s 17-year-old Joyce Nsimba, who fled a life of forced prostitution in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Both were smuggled into Canada — refugee minors alone, adrift and underserved by the system.
Delmos follows her characters for a year, capturing mundane teenage life — in home economics class, at the Eaton Centre yearning for things they can’t afford — and the hardships of starting a new life. Joyce seeks out the Salvation Army where she sings with the choir, and Sallieu finds solace among other migrants at the Matthew House, a refugee settlement shelter. He is frank about his isolation. He longs for people with whom he can “share ideas and stuff.” Even the ebullient Joyce, with her wide, warm face, projects a quiet loneliness even though she is happy to be in Canada, where she finally “has a place.”
Through these characters, the film exposes the lack of support for unaccompanied minors seeking asylum. Sallieu and Joyce get through because of a few pivotal people.
“Most Canadians presume that for anyone that comes into Canada asking for asylum as a refugee that there’s a system in place, where they’re sheltered and welcomed and assisted,” says Anne Woolger-Bell, executive director of Matthew House. “There is nothing; they are numbered among the homeless, and most fall through the cracks because nobody knows about them.” The government gives them $630 a month, which barely covers rent and food, and additional welfare payments are available as long as they stay in school. The application for permanent residency alone is $525.
Day-to-day troubles aside, Sallieu and Joyce are painfully aware of the fortunes of their new home. “Here you don’t think about someone coming up behind you with a machete,” says Sallieu. “Being here is like heaven.”
This story originally appeared in the November 2010 issue of The UC Observer with the title, “Everybody’s Children.”