Cleopatra Mbali Masinga may be in Newmarket, but she has her mind on the other side of the world, where women in refugee camps face discrimination, poverty, danger and violence every day.
As an immigrant from South Africa, it is her own deep gratitude for the safety and respect for human rights and equality offered to newcomers to Canada that compels her to create awareness here of the dire situation facing a growing number of displaced women and children in countries like Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“Our world is changing,” Masinga said. “And so must we — I want to help create awareness and open eyes about the crisis of displaced refugees, as well as climate change.”
Masinga, who has spoken around the world on international development issues, said, “We are seeing the highest levels of displacement on record and this needs to matter — to be a responsibility — to all of us.”
Refugees are often denied basic human rights such as education, health care, employment and freedom of movement, she said.
While entire communities suffer, women and girls are often the most affected by the violence, emergencies and disasters, Masinga added.
A staggering 68.5 million people worldwide were forcibly displaced due to war, violence and persecution in 2017, according to a 2018 report by the United Nations' refugee agency.
That's an average of one person displaced every two seconds of the day, according to the UNHCR's annual "Global Trends" study.
In addition to persecution and conflict, an increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters like floods, earthquakes, hurricanes and mudslides — sometimes due to climate change — is also driving people to seek refuge in other countries.
On March 15, Masinga is a featured speaker at the Dinner for Displacement, What She Knows Matters: A Conversation on Women Refugees, hosted by Oxfam at the University of Toronto.
Masinga’s expertise includes studies and degrees in international development, natural resources management, gender issues and climate justice at universities in England and the United States.
In 2015, while she was pursuing her MA in diplomacy and international relations at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, she became involved with the United Nations Commission on Women, which boosted her career and her passion to work with women on issues such as gender equality and climate change.
Masinga has worked in government ministries in South Africa and, most recently, as a case manager in the constituency office of former Newmarket-Aurora MPP and Environment and Climate Change minister Chris Ballard.
Currently on maternity leave, she is volunteering with Project Abraham, an organization that provides resettlement and support to Yazidi women and children refugees from Iraq who were raped and tortured by ISIS, she said.
As well, she is writing a book that will tell stories of women who are refugees in Canada.
“I came to Canada because I wanted change. I knew that Canada respected immigrants, and women’s rights, and that there was a good chance that I would not face discrimination,” Masinga said.
Her eyes quickly tear up as she speaks about Canada and how it has welcomed her as an immigrant and provided opportunities to her, her partner and four children aged 8, 6, 3 and six months.
“I am thankful to be here,” she said. “You are made to feel at home in Canada.”
She responded with firmness that she and her family have not experienced discrimination in Newmarket.
“In everything, I’m grateful for Newmarket,” she said, adding that she also has a community of friendship through her church, Newmarket Alliance.
While most Canadians are compassionate, she added that some, however, “easily judge refugees harshly”.
“People who are anti-refugee don’t know the stories behind them and what brought them here,” she said. “I’m trying to find a way for local people to better understand why so many people are being displaced from all over the world.”
To learn more about the Oxfam event, from 7 to 9:30 p.m. tonight at the Toronto Centre for Social Innovation (Annex) at 720 Bathurst St., visit Oxfam Canada on Facebook, online at oxfam.ca or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tickets are $20 ($15 for students) and include a buffet dinner, live music and a silent auction, with all proceeds going directly to Oxfam Canada to support their mission to build safe spaces that provide women access to social services, medical assistance, job training and legal aid.
“With inspiring speakers, live music, good food, a silent auction and a welcoming atmosphere, this is the perfect occasion to learn more about refugee camps and meet others passionate about making change,” the organizers say.
The two other speakers are: Laila Omar, a University of Toronto sociology PhD student and Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship doctoral award recipient who specializes in immigrant and refugee integration and qualitative methods; and Christine Martin, humanitarian campaigns and outreach officer at Oxfam Canada.