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New exhibit at Pier 21 highlights stories of Southeast Asian refugees who fled war

Stephanie Stobbe at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax  in front the exhibit she created about the journey of refugees from Southeast Asia. (Submitted by Stephanie Stobbe - image credit)
Stephanie Stobbe at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax in front the exhibit she created about the journey of refugees from Southeast Asia. (Submitted by Stephanie Stobbe - image credit)

One of Stephanie Stobbe's earliest memories is the sounds of bombs falling.

She was just a young girl when the Vietnam War spilled into her neighbouring home country of Laos, and the United States dropped millions of cluster bombs on its towns and cities.

Stobbe said her family was also threatened with being transferred to re-education camps when they made the difficult decision to leave Laos.

"[My parents] really felt that they couldn't live there any longer and that they wanted their children to grow up in a peaceful country," Stobbe told CBC Radio's Mainstreet Halifax on Monday.

Stobbe said she remembers taking a dangerous boat trip on the Mekong River, with her father, two sisters and pregnant mother, and needing to remain silent and unseen by both Thai and Laotian soldiers.

Stephanie Stobbe, far right, is seen with her family after arriving in Canada.
Stephanie Stobbe, far right, is seen with her family after arriving in Canada.

Stephanie Stobbe, far right, is seen with her family after arriving in Canada. (Submitted by Stephanie Stobbe)

They were seeking asylum in neighbouring Thailand, with the hope of waiting out the war and one day returning to Laos.

But that wouldn't be the case. The Lao government threatened the Thai government with war if they didn't send refugees back, Stobbe said.

"That's when we thought we better get into an official refugee camp and to seek asylum or to resettle in a third country," she said.

Stobbe and her family eventually sought refuge in Canada, and became one of thousands resettled in the country.

Stobbe's story and dozens of others are now being highlighted at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax.

The travelling exhibit, called Hearts of Freedom: Stories of Southeast Asian Refugees, was created by Stobbe, who is the chair of conflict resolution studies at Menno Simons College at the University of Winnipeg.

It features a collection of stories of people from across Canada who fled Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam between 1975 and 1985.

"This exhibit does an outstanding job of telling their stories using the voices of the actual refugees and how they came to Canada and what ended up being a very large scale and successful resettlement of refugees," said Dan Conlin, the museum's curator.

He said this exhibit has been a long time coming to Pier 21. He has been working with Stobbe and her team on the exhibit for about five years.

The team completed 175 oral history interviews with refugees from Southeast Asia, Conlin said, who are now living in 10 cities across Canada, from Vancouver to Winnipeg to Halifax.

"This is a big colourful exhibit with some great innovative features," he said. "It gives people a really in-depth understanding of both the overseas challenges and then how people found new lives in Canada."

The exhibit is made up of six panels that include photos and quotes from refugees, and an associated QR code so people can connect to a digital exhibition.

Stobbe said one of the goals of the exhibit is to highlight successful stories of integration and settlement and "how these communities have done quite well here in Canada and are making great contributions to Canada and around the world."

She said it's important to recognize the significance of Canada successfully resettling 210,000 Southeast Asian refugees between 1975 and 1997.

"Another main goal is … celebrating the fact that this movement truly made Canada multicultural in many ways because we were the largest [group of] non-Europeans to come to Canada."

Hearts of Freedom: Stories of Southeast Asian Refugees opens at Pier 21 Tuesday evening and will run until Dec. 3.

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