World Children’s Day is celebrated on the 20th November to commemorate the Declaration of the Rights of the Child. To acknowledge World Children’s Day, Dorota Blumczynska shares her personal story as witnessed through the eyes of a refugee child. Since secretly fleeing Poland as a child, Dorota’s life has centered on survival. Surviving displacement, migration, poverty, the loss of a parent, becoming an orphan, a ward of the child welfare system, and violence. Because Dorota wears her heart proudly on her sleeve, she does not hold back when she emotionally shares these stories. Heart wrenching but filled with hope.
As the Executive Director of the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba (IRCOM) Dorota’s determination and leadership allowed her to oversee the rapid growth of Manitoba’s largest settlement and community development organizations. Today Dorota Blumczynska is the CEO of the Manitoba Museum. Having personally experienced the Manitoba Museum as a child refugee, she believes it has the opportunity to meaningfully contribute to inclusivity and community cohesion, leaning into is purpose as a living institution and centre for intercultural dialogue.
Dorota Blumczynska has a double major in Business Administration. In 2014 she was recognized as an emerging female leader in Canada.
She currently serves as the Past President of the Canadian Council for Refugees.
Her website is: www.dorotablumczynsa.com and she can be found daily on twitter:
Speaker 1 00:00:00
This podcast was recorded on the ancestral lands on Treaty One territory, the traditional territory of the Anishnawbe, Cree, Oji Cree, Dakota, and the Dene peoples, and on the homeland of the Métis nation.
Speaker 2 00:00:19
This is Humans on Rights, a podcast advocating for the education of human rights. Here's your host.
Speaker 1 00:00:27
Stuart Murray november 20 is International Children's Day, and the theme for International Children's Day is Equity and Inclusion for Every Child. Now, for those of you that may have read the notes or seen the photograph of my guest today, my guest is the CEO of the Manitoba Museum, and she is an educator and activist advocate storyteller. And the most important part, I believe, that will tie into International Children's Day is she is a refugee. She has a great and varied background in terms of her professional career. She has a double major in Business Administration and in English. In 2014, she was selected as the emerging female leader in Canada. In 2019, she completed the executive education program at the Smith School of Business and Queens University. Quite an incredible resume and background, which I'm going to put into the episode notes, because there's too much to mention. But I am thrilled and very, very honored to have the CEO of the Manitoba Museum welcome to Humans on Rights.Dorota Blumczynska
Speaker 2 00:01:48
Thank you so much, Stewart. It's such an honor to be here with you today.
Speaker 1 00:01:52
So, Daroda, I did mention at the top about International Children's Day. Just to put in perspective, I was born in Canada. My children were born in Canada. My grandchildren were born in Canada. You, however, are your refugee child, and I want to have a conversation with you about that journey. Tell us about where you were born and how it is that you found yourself coming to Canada.
Speaker 2 00:02:19
I think it's just very important for me to begin by saying that I am a newcomer to treaty number one land. And I understand that I have a particular responsibility not just to learn and understand the harms of the past, but also the injustices of the present. And that I think I'm compelled to enter into relationships that are built on a spirit of truth and reconciliation, because in my life, I have benefited so tremendously from our shared lands and shared skies. So, just to begin, I was born in the summer of 1081 in Poland. And if you're familiar with a little bit of Eastern European history, in December of Marshall, law was introduced in Poland. So Poland had been Soviet occupied for decades. But in the 80s, it became very politically uneasy. There was a bit of a revolution brewing. So there was a great movement called Solidarnoshed, which means Solidarity, and a lot of ordinary people were part of that movement because they desired to bring democracy, to have Poland be free. Poland was economically oppressed. It was politically oppressed. There were limited opportunities, empty shelves, food stamps rationing. It was a very complicated space and time that represents my earliest years as a child. And my parents were active in Solidarity, so they were active in these kind of quiet underground gatherings, in mobilizing civil society, in disseminating information about how to uproot this imposed government. And I'm not exactly sure what happened, but there had to have been one or several events that led them to to believe that remaining in Poland was perhaps no longer safe or that the change that they were seeking may not come. And so at one point, they made, I think, a very difficult decision to leave Poland. And at that point in time, the Polish borders were closed, and it wasn't easy to leave the country. And so a bit of a ruse had to be created so that we could get authorizations to exit under the guise of a vacation. And so that's what my mother ended up doing with the four of us. Our father, I think, has managed to leave much earlier, and so he was already in Western Europe, but we, the four of us and our mom boarded a train in Paul, took a very, very long train journey through Czechoslovakia and then into Germany. And in Germany, we came to a refugee reception center where we were registered, and from there we were transported to our refugee camp.
Speaker 1 00:05:17
So Darwin just on that for a second. Give us a sense of how old are you at this point?
Speaker 2 00:05:21
Shortly after turning seven, I had taken the train, and before we came to Canada, I was just past eight.
Speaker 1 00:05:29
Okay, so you're seven years old, you're on a train. Did you know where you were going? Did your mother tell you where you were going?
Speaker 2 00:05:35
No, my mom told us we were going on vacation, that we were leaving the country to go on holiday. You have to understand, a number of things had to happen simultaneously. So, one, she had to get four children out of the country without causing alarm in any of us, and also having all of us rather cooperatively leave our lives behind. Right. So leave behind your books and your toys and your clothes and the life and the world that, you know, you do that very differently if you think you're coming back in a few weeks. You know, you leave everything behind very cheerfully because it's going to wait for you. And the other piece is that at various international checkpoints, as the train was moving along, we were separated from our mom by armed guards, and we were interrogated as to where we were going and for how long. And children who don't know the truth can't tell the truth, right? So if all you know is we're going on vacation, so that's what we said. We're going on vacation. I have a T shirt and I have a sweater, because who knows what the weather will be like? And that's it.
Speaker 1 00:06:44
That's an intelligent mother.
Speaker 2 00:06:46
Yes. She's very clever. Yeah.
Speaker 1 00:06:48
So I apologize, but I just wanted to get a sense of age. So now you're on the train, and you're moving to a refugee camp.
Speaker 2 00:06:55
Yeah. So we arrived at a refugee camp. It was in Bavaria. It was outside of a town called Schindberg, and it was a number of, I think, three or four story buildings that were occupied by many families from the Eastern European Front. So we had come from many different countries. There were lots of languages spoken. We were generally kept in that area. We could enter the you know, we would go to town for school. But once a week, trucks would arrive with our food rations, and so boxes would come, and there would be a box assigned per person. You know, what I do remember is that the children's boxes, they were small, but a child's box, for example, would contain 500 grams of rice and a bag of Habiba gummy bears. And that's how you knew it was a child's boxes, because it had some sort of candy in it. We lived rather peacefully. It was absolutely very difficult. I think it was difficult on the communities that surrounded us. There were absolutely people who were very welcoming and kind, and then there were those people who felt that we were imposing and didn't want these migrants within their town.
Speaker 1 00:08:19
So, Dorothy, was your father with you at this point?
Speaker 2 00:08:22
Yes. So we were rejoined by him in Germany. Then my youngest brother was born in Germany. So our family grew to seven in the 14 months that we lived there.
Speaker 1 00:08:32
Oh, wow. So what was your reaction, if you recall, as a young child, you're eight years of age, thinking that you're going on vacation, and then you realize that, no, your life is going to pivot substantially?
Speaker 2 00:08:45
It was very difficult. We all took it very differently. My eldest sister is five years older than me, so, you know, she was already a young teenager. She was older, had more established friends, and, you know, knew our language. And then all of a sudden, we were in this country, and we were learning this new language. I mean, it was difficult to make sense of the fact that we had left everything the way it was. You know, so we hadn't packed our home. There were things that I was aware of, but I thought, well, but I left this doll, or I left these toys, or if I had known, I would have wanted to take this or that, but you can't take those things with you. You have to leave it all behind. But, you know, we made great friends. We built a community there. My mother made friends with many German women. We had beautiful clothes donated to us for the first time in our lives. We had different kinds of food brought to us. So we had a Poland being locked down, didn't have things like citrus fruit. So all of a sudden, we had oranges. I remember oranges very distinctly. I remember trying an orange. So, you know, my life had in some ways improved. I was very lucky because we were in the camp together with my mother's, sister and her family, so I had my cousins with us, and so there was a sense of familiarity and normalcy.
Speaker 1 00:10:13
Was language a barrier for you in this camp?
Speaker 2 00:10:16
Yes. No. I mean, we didn't speak any German. Right. So we were taken into a German school and talked German right away, and it was just immediate immersion. So it wasn't by a Polish teacher teaching you German, it was just German and you had to learn it. I was seven years old the first time I encountered the question of where are you from? And I was asked that by a very nice German farmer whose fields I had snuck into because he had a horse in his field. And so I had climbed a hill to leave the buildings in the camp. And I had walked over to this horse and I was standing on the fence and the farmer came over and started speaking in German to me, and he knew I was from the camp down the hill. And the question came of where are you from? It was the first time I began to realize that I was outside of something. I hadn't made the connection that I was no longer from wherever it is that I was right. And I had to now begin to answer that question. But I answered it, and he was very kind and he threw a blanket on top of the horse and plucked me on top of it and walked me around in circles. So it was a great act of compassion. And actually, in my twenty s, I traveled back to that farm to look for that man, to thank him for that act of kindness.
Speaker 1 00:11:44
And was he alive when you got there? Were you able to do that?
Speaker 2 00:11:47
No. The farm had been sold to another family. It was still there, and so the pasture was there. Everything that I had remembered was there. And I was with friends who spoke German, so they explained all of the context. But it was still wonderful to go back to that space and see it a bit with a different set of eyes as an adult.
Speaker 1 00:12:05
Oh, for sure. Yeah. So, amazing experience. DA Rota so how do you find yourself? Is there another step between getting to Canada? And tell us what your experience was, what you learned and what you thought and what it was like to know you were coming and when you arrived, what your first sort of sense was.
Speaker 2 00:12:25
Coming to Canada, we were woken up in the night and put into a very small vehicle and driven through the forest of Germany to a major city to be put on an airplane. For me, life was an adventure. I had never been on an airplane. And again, I didn't have a sense of the permanent. I couldn't comprehend at that age what an ocean was and what it meant to cross that ocean. And, you know, this is the 1980s. There's no Internet. No one is showing you pictures of where you're going. You're completely traveling into the unknown. Of all the things that we could have taken, again, we left behind a few things that we had managed to acquire in Germany. My mother brought bed sheets because she thought, well, who knows if they're going to have bedsheets in Canada? And the journey was long. And then we land in another place. And it's late October. It was October 27. It's cooler than we're used to. People are speaking yet another language.
Speaker 1 00:13:32
And where did you land, Darodo?
Speaker 2 00:13:33
Speaker 1 00:13:34
In Winnipeg. So you flew from Germany to Toronto and then Toronto.
Speaker 2 00:13:39
We went back wow.
Speaker 1 00:13:40
Speaker 2 00:13:41
In October? Yeah. And then we get here, and we were sponsored here by a Polish church group as privately sponsored refugees. So we had some people at the airport to receive us, and we were taken to a home on Selkirk Avenue, quite close to Selkirk and Main Street. You start again and you wake up the next day and you go to school and you start trying to figure it out again. And it was very overwhelming. It was overwhelming and frightening.
Speaker 1 00:14:17
And what age are you now, Darwin? Just to put it into perspective, now.
Speaker 2 00:14:20
That you're in Winnipeg at this point.
Speaker 1 00:14:23
Wow. What an incredible amount to experience in the first eight years of your life.
Speaker 2 00:14:29
Speaker 1 00:14:29
So you're now eight years of age, and you're in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. And is your whole family again with you, Daroda? Has everybody made this journey?
Speaker 2 00:14:39
Yes. So all seven of us came across.
Speaker 1 00:14:42
Right. So, through your eyes, you arrive in Winnipeg. I guess part of this in your own mind, you wonder, is this the final stopping point, or is there another point after this? I mean, rationalizing that by this point.
Speaker 2 00:14:58
I had almost near fluency in German, and that was of no use all of a sudden. So that was difficult. And I think in the few days that followed our landing came Halloween, which was not something that we had ever experienced before. So my real introduction to Canada was quite warm because I think we ended up having a bed sheet thrown over us, holes cut into the eyes, pillowcases in hand. And I'm pretty sure my first words were trickortreats.
Speaker 1 00:15:31
Speaker 2 00:15:33
So it was a great country as far as I'm concerned.
Speaker 1 00:15:36
Speaker 2 00:15:36
Because I got to come home with massive amounts of candy, and I was like, what is this place? It was difficult in that in the month that followed, winter arrived. We had never known that kind of winter. So when Poland plus one, plus two, when it gets really cold, it's minus two, minus three, and everything shuts down. And people can't function. And then all of a sudden, here It's -20, and -25 and -30, and my parents Struggle To find work and then eventually enter into survival, employment. But all the working isn't enough. It's just not enough to feed seven people to house. Seven people to have enough clothing. So then we're getting food from Pampers, and we're getting clothing delivered to us in garbage bags that other people don't want. We're Struggling. We end up using my eldest sister's social insurance number in order to gain additional employment within no time. I think I'm about ten or eleven years old and I'm cleaning offices at night together with my older sister and my dad.
Speaker 1 00:16:44
Are you going to school at that time also? Daroda So you're going to school during the day, you're working at night, and at that time I know if I ask you a question to look back. When you look back, obviously there's tremendous emotional triggers that may come to you. But when you're there at that time, did you ever get a sense as you're going to school and working at night and watching your parents, did you ever get a sense of whether there's a sense of desperation or did you sort of say, look, we're free. We're in this country. It may be cold, but did you ever want at that point, to say, where is this all going?
Speaker 2 00:17:28
I don't know that children have that kind of awareness. I can tell you that I was incredibly happy, that I was always a very, very happy child. I loved the cleaning job. I did a really good job of it, and I've not kept it a secret. One of the places that I cleaned was the offices of the Children's Museum.
Speaker 1 00:17:48
Speaker 2 00:17:49
And part of my job that was assigned to me was that I had to slide down that tree, slide with a rig behind me so I could wash the slide and sit in the long train and wash all the tables and the benches of the train. So, quite frankly, I had free, unencumbered access to the Children's Museum for hours and hours. So, no, I never had a sense that things were as difficult as they were. I think the only time that I kind of had a bit of a glimpse into things not being okay is when I would go grocery shopping with my mum and when we would get to the cash and she would run out of money. And so then she would have to select things and start putting them back and saying, no, I'm not buying this and not this and not this. And when I saw her kind of count out how many buns and how many meals this was supposed to last for. And I think my sense that we were really struggling was clear in those moments where she tried to somehow have enough food for all of us and clothing for all of us.
Speaker 1 00:19:01
And did you have a sense that you were starting to become part of a community, darwin at that point, not entirely.
Speaker 2 00:19:08
You know, my parents were very much part of the Polish Diaspora. Really? Their friends were polished. We went to Polish church on Sunday. We went to Polish school on Saturday. My mother was a teacher at the Polish school because my parents identity was so galvanized. They knew who they were. They were polish. They were Polish in Canada, but they were still Polish. And so I feel like they were never negotiating their core identity. They knew who they were, and so they kept to the Polish community, which kept us to the Polish community. And it also, in some ways, prevented us from building meaningful relationships or building friendships. Right. But also, I think, as migrant children, we didn't have the freedom to be children. You know, like, I had to look after my brothers. I had to rush home at 330 so my mother could take the bus to go to work at 40. And then I would be left with my two little brothers and I would need to cook the dinner, or I need to do all the laundry, or I didn't hang out at malls. I didn't go to the movies. I didn't have those things.
Speaker 1 00:20:17
Yeah. So, Darwin, you're a young child, and again, we're talking about World Children's Day and the perspective of what we all might have today. As we look back on your time at that young age, did you ever get a sense that, when I grow up, I want to be oh, yeah. What did you want to be?
Speaker 2 00:20:40
I wanted to be a writer. From the earliest time that I can remember, I wanted to be a writer. I wrote poetry, I wrote plays, I wrote short stories, you know, dialogue, monologues. I love literature, I love storytelling. And I love the power of being able to create dreams and almost make them come true through writing. It was a huge passion and a dream to become a writer.
Speaker 1 00:21:11
And so you obviously graduated because I know you went to university, but you graduated from high school.
Speaker 2 00:21:17
Speaker 1 00:21:18
And which high school did you graduate from? Daroda kelvin. Kelvin, okay. And when you graduated, did you want to go to university? Did you have the opportunity? Was that something that was even discussed in your family?
Speaker 2 00:21:31
Yeah. No, it was. I mean, both of my parents had masters degrees, so we were very much raised with, you're going to go to university, you're going to go to university. But it's important to share that. I think around the time that I was about twelve or 13 years old, my mother had cancer for the first time. And she battled the cancer. I think for a little while it appeared to be gone. Then her cancer came back, and when she was 44 years old and I was 16, she died. She died in september, and two months later, I was in the child welfare system. So I became award of CFS. And so I lived under the care of the province until I aged out at 18. But prior to my mom passing away, I had made a promise to go to university. So when I graduated high school, I mean, I had two things I needed well, really three things I needed to face. One is I didn't have the credit to go to university, so I needed to go back to high school and do more credits to go to university. I needed to figure out how it is that I would afford to go to university because I was entirely on my own. But also at 18, I aged out of CFS, which means that overnight, you know, you lose your support. You know, everyone says you're an adult and now you're supposed to take care of yourself. I can tell you an 18 year old is not an adult. But I had to figure out how to live, how to provide, how to take care of myself, finish the schooling, get to university. Yeah. So I did. Yeah, I went to university, but I would say that, you know, my first degree took me seven years, and it's because I worked full time and I went to night school or I flipped to night work and then went to daytime university full time, but it took a long time.
Speaker 1 00:23:22
So, Daroda, when you became Award of the Child and Family Service System, what was happening at that time with your brothers and sisters or your family?
Speaker 2 00:23:33
My mom passing away was very difficult on us. I was 16, my sisters were 19 and 21, so they were adults. My brothers were eight and ten, so they were still very little. A month after my mom passed away, my paternal grandmother passed away in Poland. And so my father's world was shattered when my mum passed, and then it was further broken when his mother passed and when he got back from Poland from the funeral, I think it was too much to look after everyone. And so my school was called by CFS for me to come to the social workers office on Broadway, and so I did that, and I was in the social workers office when a phone call was made to my father to confirm that I was not able to come home anymore. At that point, he confirmed that and he relinquished his parental rights to me, stating that he didn't have the means to support the three remaining children who are under 18. And yeah.
Speaker 1 00:24:45
So did you go and live with another family or you're literally on your own?
Speaker 2 00:24:50
No. I was initially told by the social worker that I would be going to a group home. And I think, given everything that was happening at that point in time, having just lost my mom and everything I had known was falling apart, I beg them for the chance to live independently. And at 16, CFS can decide that a 16 year old can live independently. And so they hesitantly agreed and said, yeah, you can, you know, we'll try it out. You have to find a very cheap apartment. We'll just pay the rent, and then you'll get a monthly allowance. And you need to support yourself, you know, food, bus tickets, clothing, utilities, everything.
Speaker 1 00:25:32
You're still going to school, right?
Speaker 2 00:25:33
Yeah, I'm still going to high school, yeah. And so I did that. I found an apartment was not great. It was not in a safe place. It was really awful. And the next two years that followed were unbelievably hard, but I survived them.
Speaker 1 00:25:50
Yeah, for sure. And I think Darwin, one of the things that comes across when we go to your background and your history and what you've done, the challenges that you've been through personally and with your family are really quite extraordinary. And I think the notion that you're able to talk about the fact that as a young person, an eight or nine year old, you were working, cleaning the toilets and cleaning the museum, that you are now the president's, CEO of that institution.
Speaker 2 00:26:24
Oh, no. The Children's Museum or the Children's Museum?
Speaker 1 00:26:28
I apologize. So the Children's Museum, not the Manitoba Museum, not the Mantoba. When you graduated, did you get a sense I mean, you wanted to be a writer. You write beautifully. Your website is full of a number of blogs which I've read and I want to come back and talk about. Some of them are very powerful. When you graduated Daroda from Kelvin, did you see a path for yourself? Did you start to say, this is where I'm going, or was it a matter of just saying, look, let me just get to university and see where that might go?
Speaker 2 00:27:00
There was no path. There was no path. I graduated shortly after I got pregnant with my first child. I lost her in the second trimester, which was very difficult. I went abroad to Thailand, actually, on a special exchange, because I had been enrolled in university when I lost her. But having been enrolled as a post secondary student, that qualified me for an international exchange. So even though I had to withdraw because of her loss, I still managed to go on the exchange. I went to Thailand for if it was four or five months, and my time abroad was life changing. I came back and came back, I think on a Friday. I was in university class. On the Monday, I went straight into school. I borrowed money from my grandmother at that point to go to school. And you have to understand, it's a woman who had gone through so many wars, and she said, I'll help you go to school, but I'm not paying for your school. So we wrote a promissory note, and I borrowed money from my grandmother, which took me years to pay back. But then I also found a job at the RBC call center, their customer contact center. And I did well. I kept going on with doing this business degree that my mother wanted me to do because it was practical, because being a writer wasn't practical, and I was never going to make any money on writing, so I needed to do something practical. So I was doing a business degree for her, and I was working at RBC, learning and taking their courses. I was at RBC for almost five years. And in those five years, I went from the customer contact center to a branch, to being a personal financial services representative, to obtaining a license to sell mutual funds so I could do retirement planning and mortgages and investment advice. So by the time I'm 24, I've really gained a lot of experience, but also climbed to a variety of roles within RBC. I have a business degree, and it's all there. Everything my mother wants is all there.
Speaker 1 00:29:21
Geralda, let me just backtrack for 1 second. So you were pregnant, you lost a child, you went to Thailand.
Speaker 2 00:29:28
Speaker 1 00:29:29
And you said that it was life changing. How so?
Speaker 2 00:29:32
For a part of the time, I was with a wonderful family, a wonderful family in a homestate situation in a very small village, Rajaburi, which is west I think it's west of Bangkok. I found community there. I was in a home with parents. So I think for me, there was a lot of healing around that to be to be taken care of after being, you know, on my own for three years. They were very spiritual people. So my host father had arranged for me to go into a Buddhist monastery. And the way that works is that there are Buddhist nuns who spend their lives in monasteries, but also laypeople can enter a Buddhist monastery for a period of time, for a period of silent reflection. And so he had arranged that for me. And so for a period of seven days, I was in this monastery in the middle of the Thai jungle where no one spoke English. So I was learning a little bit of Thai sleeping on the floor. You eat one meal a day, and this is before sunrise. And then you take your metal containers and you walk through the villages gathering food that you're going to eat the next day. You do meditation, you take part in prayer. And in reflection, you wear these beautiful white robes, one for sleeping and one for the day and nothing else. So it's very basic and minimalistic, but it's also very much intended to not have you be distracted by everything on the outside of yourself so that you could look deeply inward. And one of the most beautiful spots within the monastery grounds was around library. And that library was filled with books written in English about various religions of the world and various. Value systems and philosophies. And so I would spend hours and hours just sitting there and reading that. The one person who spoke a little bit of English was the head mother. And so I had a chance to speak to her about the loss of my daughter and my grief. And she gave a lot of guidance around how to celebrate that life, but also how to not how to sever the connection, but how to separate yourself from the grief of it. So holding on to the memory and to the joy of that life, but not holding on to the pain, because that pain was like a weight that was holding you down. And the head mother spoke a lot about moving with intention into the future. So that was one experience within months of an experience that just showed me a different world and a different way.
Speaker 1 00:32:24
Thank you so much for sharing that, Darwin. So I asked you to go back. Let's kind of pick up where you were at, which is you're now at RBC for five years. Things are looking very positive for you. You've established yourself. Continue on with sort of your next chapter of your life.
Speaker 2 00:32:43
Well, as I had said, it was everything my mother wanted, but it wasn't what I wanted. And the thing is, I wasn't happy. And there came an opportunity to get a scholarship to study abroad, and so I applied for it, and I got a scholarship to go and study in France, in Bordeaux. And I thought, okay, I'm doing it. And I finished the business degree, and I thought, okay, I'm going to go to France. I'm going to do additional coursework in language and try and increase my French language skills. And then the day I leave for France, I find out I'm pregnant. So I'm like, okay, no problem. I go to France with my tiny baby inside me. I study. I'm there for about four, five months, and then there's some complications with the pregnancy, and the advice is to go back home. So I returned to Canada. Months later, I have my son, who's now 16 and a half.
Speaker 1 00:33:47
Right? What's his name? Daroda.
Speaker 2 00:33:49
Speaker 1 00:33:50
Speaker 2 00:33:54
Isaiah born. And then that fall, I register for more university classes. But this time it's all English, creative writing, writing children's stories. It's all writing. And it's all for me. It's what I want at this point. And I start doing all of that. I'm raising him. I'm taking university classes. Certainly things are not as abundant as they were when I was working full time at the bank, but, you know, life is moving forward. And then I got a request to start volunteering in a program with refugee women, helping them learn English in the basement of an inner city school through this little organization called EARCOM, where my best friend had just become the executive director and said, I need everybody to be there to help. So I said, okay, well, I've got this little kid, you know, at this point, Isaiah's, about a year and a half old. And she said, It's no big deal. Just bring them along. And so I go into that classroom with this child on my hip and sit down at the table, lots of other moms, lots of other babies, and we start practicing English. And I fall in love with your calm, and I fall in love with the work of being with community and teaching English and building a sense of belonging and sharing our stories and understanding our histories. And that's kind of the beginning of things moving.
Speaker 1 00:35:33
So, Daroda, tell us a little bit about IRCOM. I mean, what does it stand for? I know, but I'd like you to explain it.
Speaker 2 00:35:40
IRCOM is the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba, and it's a settlement organization for newly arrived refugee families. So people land and they can find temporary housing for their first three years in Canada at ERCOM. And together with that housing is a lot of programming to learn language or gain employment or understand the health care system. Just a whole myriad of supports and services that are intended to help people meaningfully integrate. And at that point in time, EARCOM was much smaller than it is today. But the first position that became available was a teacher of English as a Second Language. And I had been volunteering in the classroom, and somewhere along the way, I did a certificate in teaching English as Tesla. So I had a Tesla certificate from the University of Manitoba that I completed, and I had a bachelor degree. And so that qualified me to teach English to adults. And so my first job at EARCOM was 10 hours a week, but really it was full time, but it was ten paid hours a week. But I got to bring my son with me into the childcare space. Yeah, it was great.
Speaker 1 00:36:51
I'm glad you sort of talked a little about your calm, Darwin, because I was blessed to be introduced to, I think, when you left. I believe Shireen took over after you left, and Shireen Denito, and she's been on my podcast, and a great, great story. But I know that was your history and sort of your back channel and sort of how you got yourself so established in this community. And, I mean, you came from a lived, experienced opportunity, right? So when you were talking to people, it was must have been very important for them to hear your story, but for you to share that lived experience.
Speaker 2 00:37:29
I think it was. But I think being that AIRCOM, the gift was really given to me through that experience. I mean, I'm the one who benefited tremendously. Because I have to tell you, I didn't know a lot of my own story until a number of years ago. In my family and in my community, we talked a lot about being immigrants but we didn't talk a lot about being refugees, except there were pieces about the story that never made sense. Right, so these are your sponsors? Well, generally, immigrants don't have sponsors, and so on and so forth. So I actually only learned the truth of how we arrived through a Freedom of Information request that I had. An immigration lawyer helped me with that. We submitted to the federal government to obtain my family's immigration file. And it was in that immigration file that it was confirmed that we were privately sponsored refugees. And then I wrote to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees with the codes on my immigration documents. And I asked I said, what are these codes? And they confirmed that they were refugee codes. They were not immigrant class codes. And so I did a lot of work, I don't know, maybe five years ago at most, to really understand the story, because everything I had been told wasn't consistent. And yet what I was hearing from many refugee families at EARCOM was so much more of what I had experienced. You know, the international crossings of being an account, the being sponsored. And I was like, this is yeah, right. They helped me make sense of my own life.
Speaker 1 00:39:05
So, Darwin, when you find all of that information out, when I think about how you have found yourself to this conversation that we're having today and where you've come from and sort of the number of times that you have been on a journey not knowing where you are going, starting from the very first time you left Poland to all of these places that you are trying to discover your personal human life journey. When you discovered or it became very clear that you were a child refugee, how did that impact you? What sorts of things did you have to sort of work through? And I go back to the powerful piece that you learned in Thailand in terms of how to deal with the loss of a child. How did you deal with the fact that this was something that was now who you really are, and you're now an adult, and you're sort of having to deal with this, you're a mother? How did that all sort of come to sort of be who you are?
Speaker 2 00:40:05
It's been a very complicated and difficult journey. Like I said, I did the Freedom of Information request, and that was one piece of information. And then at one point and I don't even remember, but it's in one of the blogs where my auntie had called from Poland and said, you know, there's this storage locker, and it's filled with boxes of things your family left behind. And I couldn't make sense of it, but I went home to Poland with my three kids at this point. I left them at my cousins, and I went with my aunt to rummage through these boxes that hadn't been opened for for 30 years. And opening these boxes and seeing parts of a life that I think I thought I had imagined, or I couldn't tell if it was memory or if it was stories that were told to me that I was then painting into memories. But there were things, you know, in those boxes, bowls, apple shaped bowls that I had used as a very young child, but I remembered loving. And all of a sudden, they were there. And that was another piece that came together. So I think in the last, I don't know, decade, but perhaps most of my adult life, there are puzzle pieces that have been coming together, bits of information that have helped me try to better understand who I am and who I've been and maybe have a little bit of courage as to where it is that I'm headed. I've been afraid to dream. When you come through these circumstances, I think, especially as a migrant child, in part your collateral damage in this process of trying to build a new life. Because, like I said, my parents knew who they were. They lost a lot, but they also had access to information and they had power and decisionmaking ability and all of it. The children had none of that. And we were navigating these two different worlds and realities, conflicting information, expectations of us within our home and then within school and society that weren't consistent, trying to create an identity that made sense and then carrying the burden of everything they had lost. Right, because, you know, God bless migrant parents, but they'll never let you forget everything that they lost and gave up, you know, to bring you to safety. Like, I've heard that from every single child, you know, that was brought over. My parents will never let me forget. You have all of this. You're saddled. You're weighed down by so much complicated history and so much trauma. And like I said, almost my entire life, I've been afraid to dream. I've been afraid to want for something greater or imagine myself capable of something bigger because I've always felt pulled down and held back, because who was I to want something more? Especially when my parents had lost everything for me to at least have access to the basics. And here I am wanting to not stop at the basics, but maybe build the lives that they forfeited.
Speaker 1 00:43:35
So, Darwin, you have three children. You talk about the child that you lost before you went to Thailand. You've also lost another child.
Speaker 2 00:43:45
Yes, I lost a baby two years.
Speaker 1 00:43:48
Ago and you wrote about that. The reason I bring it up is that you wrote about it. It was a very powerful blog that you wrote. And for those people that are listening to this podcast, I'm going to make sure that in the show, notes all of your information where you need to find out information about you, Dorothy, that people can go because it's very, very powerful. But I think about what you just shared with you as how you came to be from a child into a grown adult to a parent, a mother. Have you shared all of this with your children? And if you have, how have you positioned it in such a way that you want to empower them to dream?
Speaker 2 00:44:32
I think my children, to the extent that it's appropriate, based on their ages, know a lot of my own story. They certainly know that I wasn't born here. They know that I came here as a child. They know that my mom died when I was young and that my life got very hard. My children do very clearly know that the three of them are the children that I've had the joy of raising, but that there are two other children that I never got to meet. And I've never hidden that from them because I think it's so important to acknowledge and make space for all the pain. You know, we're so accustomed to celebrating and to highlighting and to say that things have been wonderful and successful, and those things are great too. But I've made sure along the way that my children have understood what a hard journey it has been in some ways, to the extent that it's okay to tell them at their age. I love being a mother. I love the fact that I have a chance to relate to them, feeling perhaps a bit more certain than my parents did, you know, at this age, when they were going across the world and losing a lot. I will admit that I am a very traumatized person, and I think having grown up in poverty and having experienced hunger as a child, but Allison Langer in the CFS system, I know that my trauma response, in some cases, inflict stress on them, because I know that I'm always afraid of being hungry or going without. That's a very hard thing to get rid of, even when you know you're not really facing it anymore. It hangs over you. Right. And I think part of what has driven me tremendously is that I don't ever want to risk their sense of safety and their security. I never want them to be alone. I never want them to go without. I want to shelter them from as much of what I experienced as possible.
Speaker 1 00:46:39
And, Daroda, have you or will you take your children, assuming that they would like to, but would you take them back and share where you came from so that they can sort of understand your journey?
Speaker 2 00:46:53
Oh, I have. My children have been to Poland many, many times. You know, my children are all Polish citizens. I've worked to secure for them citizenship in my country because it's very important to me. We've gone back to where I lived as a small child. They were very close with my late grandmother, my mother's mother, who loved and cared for me for many years after my mom was gone. You know, they know most of my relatives back home. They've had glimpses into that other life. And I think as they get older, I look forward to sharing more with them because I think I see in them such compassion and empathy. And I think they understand it. They understand it on a deep level that there is a part of me that's also a child with my mum dying at 16. There is a part of me that will forever be 16 years old, right? It never got to grow up. That power that needs a parent, and that part that seeks, you know, that safety and sense of security that only a parent can give. So it creates a bridge for us to relate to one another as they get older. And I stay forever 16, for sure.
Speaker 1 00:48:05
Yeah, absolutely. And you know what? Having a bit of child or a lot of child and all of us, regardless of the age, you know, there's nothing wrong with that. Daroda, would you share some of the lessons that you learned from your mother that you are imparting now as a mother to your children?
Speaker 2 00:48:21
I don't know if it's helpful, but food is love, so we cook a lot in our home. We make a lot of very traditional Polish food. My daughter's father is from southern India, so we also make a lot of Indian food, whereas my son's father is Mennonite Canadian, so we also have some Mennonite and Germanic foods. So we have very delicious and diverse meals at home. So that's an important piece. My mother was very patriotic. She was very proud of being Polish. I'm very proud of being Polish. I have held on to my name despite a lot of pressure to go and anglicize it. So I hope to instill in my children a sense of pride as Polish Mennonite Canadians, polish Indian Canadians. We're very family oriented. My mother was the glue within our family, and that was through celebrations and it was through holidays, but I think it was also in everyday life through laughter and silliness and playing and having fun. And I think my children and I do a lot of that in very, very silly ways. My mother was a dreamer. I think, despite her own challenges, she was a dreamer. And I think I'm trying to figure out how to reawaken the dreamer inside of me that I put to sleep for a very long time. And I think that's where my blogging comes in, right? That desire to dream and make dreams come true. But I'm hoping that my children can follow their dreams, like, where possible. I'm trying to put their dreams at the forefront of reality because reality sinks in anyways. But it's the dreams we have to protect.
Speaker 1 00:50:03
So three quick points I want to sort of get your thoughts on, Daroda. Number one is you are obviously sought after as a keynote speaker, which is you're a storyteller. And so it's fantastic. But I note that we just had a new lieutenant Governor sworn into Manitoba, Lieutenant Governor Anita Neville, and you were the keynote speaker at her installation. What's your message? What did you talk about?
Speaker 2 00:50:33
Just to correct, it wasn't at her installation. It was at a breakfast with Leadership Winnipeg, but it was a few days after the installation. So it was the first it was the first public event that the lieutenant governor held. So it was a tremendous honor. The piece that I talked about, Leadership Winnipeg, is organized by the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, and it's a fantastic group of aspiring leaders or midcareer leaders, or just folks who have a voice within them that says to them that they're ready and perhaps excited about a more ambitious or a different future. And so I know what it's like to have that kind of voice within you. So part of what I talked about was my leadership journey. I can't separate my leadership journey from my life's journey because I think the way I lead is a result of the way I've lived wherever possible. I think I've lived with optimism, and so I lead with optimism. I've lived with my heart on my sleeve, and so I lead with my heart on my sleeve. So I talked about leadership and I talked about why it is that I came to the Manitoba Museum. I talked about answering that, calling within ourselves, and not ignoring that internal voice that says, you know, reach further. You know, go higher, do more. I mean, the keynote was a big piece of it, but I think it was the dialogue that followed and the engagement that was very enriching because it just gave me a chance to go deeper into what it is about leadership that I love the challenges along the way. And I do think that leadership is an extraordinary honor. To lead means to be trusted and to be trusted by those you lead and to be entrusted by entire organizations to care for them. So that's a bit of the things that we talked about.
Speaker 1 00:52:31
Yeah, I know. It's fantastic. Two quick other things that I wanted to get your thoughts on. Darwin. You are the CEO and President and CEO of the Manitoba Museum. What is one thing that you think that Manitoba should know about the Manitoba Museum and don't?
Speaker 2 00:52:50
It's not fair to ask me for one thing, because there are so many things. You know what I would say, and they're not my words. They're the words of Dr. Roland Swansky, who's the curator of history here at the museum. And Dr. Sowski said, your story matters here. And what I would say that I would want every single Manitoban to know is that all of our stories matter here. All of our stories are Manitoba stories. One of the most insightful things that my seven year old said to me this summer is we were on holiday back home, and out of nowhere she said, you know, Mama, we are where we come from. And I thought, how incredibly intuitive of her to understand that we can come from somewhere, wherever it is that we come from, and be that. And we happen to not be in Poland at the time when she said it. But her observation that we represent the place that we are coming from today, that's what I would say is the most critical message to Manitoba's about the museum's work. Is the museum's work, all the stories, all of the histories, they're all ours because it is where we are today. It's important to know where we've come from and where we were born and our heritage and our past, and our beautiful and complicated and wonderful and painful histories. But all of that has a place here. And all of it is important. And I think the most extraordinary manitobians are often the most ordinary Manitoba's who just live wonderful lives and have the courage to share those stories with others so we can be inspired by them. So your story, every manitobin story matters here at the Manitoba Museum.
Speaker 1 00:54:44
Well, I know that I chaired the Manitoba 150 celebrations, and when we looked at honoring 150 Manitoba, you were one. And trust me, you're not ordinary. You're quite extraordinary. Durhota one of the other things is you're very active on social media. And if anybody wants to go to Instagram and wants to put in at Blumcz Ynska, you're going to find every morning four pictures of a sunrise in Winnipeg or wherever you may be. But it's pretty much always in Winnipeg. Why do you do that? What's that about?
Speaker 2 00:55:20
It's on Twitter.
Speaker 1 00:55:21
Twitter? Sorry. I said instagram. I'm sorry, Instagram.
Speaker 2 00:55:25
And I'm like, I haven't figured out.
Speaker 1 00:55:26
Okay, so on Twitter at B-L-U-M-C-Z-Y-N-S-K-A on Twitter. Sorry, Daroda.
Speaker 2 00:55:32
No, just that it's important. So, what is that all about? Well, I started January 1, 2021, and so now I think it's 660 some days in a row that I have greeted sunrise. I started greeting Sunrise, not with the intent to keep going, but really with a couple of weeks in mind, just to ground myself, to feel a sense of hope and optimism. We were really in the thick of the pandemic. I think I was searching for something to remind me that we're still a part of community. We had gone through a lot of lockdowns and a lot of restrictions. I was still at EARCOM. It was very, very complicated for our Newcomer families. There was a lot of isolation. And that isolation, I think, especially for communities coming from war zones or war, impacted communities, that social isolation can have devastating mental health impacts. But we were also used to being a close family and being in close contact with one another. And so COVID began to tear apart the fabric that held us together. And so I very much was amongst the people who felt a sense of profound despair and where are we going? And is this ever going to end? And going to sunrise, it forced me in some ways to slow down. I couldn't get ahead on it. I couldn't do three days in one. I couldn't determine the time. It was something that was out of my control and yet was a promise it was going to happen no matter what. It would come up the next day. And I needed that sense of certainty and the sense of optimism that came with that renewal and a new beginning. And after day one, it's wonderful. And then day two, it looks different. And then day three, the colors feel different. And day four, the sky has a beautiful texture, and day five, the wind blows in a certain way, and then you start to realize that no single day is the same. And so the curiosity, but also the hunger for what's to come begins to grow. And now it's just so completely a part of what I do each and every day that, you know, I watch the horizon and I tell the kids, okay, we're getting ready for sunrise, or I'm running up to sunrise, and it's my medicine, it's my healing.
Speaker 1 00:57:59
Yeah, well, again, I'll repeat my apologies, but it's on Twitter at B-L-U-M-C-Z-Y-N-S-K-A. I'll put that all into the show notes. But Daroda Blancheska, thank you so very much for being my guest today. I started off by saying that you're an educator, activist, advocate, storyteller, refugee. I think we've touched on most of those things during this conversation, and I just am delighted that you found some time to be a part of this podcast, Humans on Rights, because it's very meaningful and I thank you for that.
Speaker 2 00:58:35
Thank you, Stuart, for this amazing opportunity. Thank you for the conversation.
Speaker 1 00:58:40
Thanks for listening to humans on rights. The transcript of this episode is available by clicking the link in the show notes of this episode. Humans on Rights is recorded and hosted by Stuart Murray. Social Media Marketing by Buffy Davy music by Doug Edmond For more, go to Humanrights hub CA.
Speaker 2 00:59:01
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