For Sharmarke Dubow, what he wants to do on Victoria’s city council and where he comes from — including five years in a Kenyan refugee camp — are closely connected.
“My motive is to better my community and that’s my focus,” Dubow said over coffee a few days after the municipal election. “That is what I’m elected to do and that is what I’m going to do, but my perspective, my story, gives me the skills to navigate that.”
Dubow is one of three new councillors who will be sworn in Thursday morning after a crowded race that saw all but one of the incumbents who ran returned to office, including Mayor Lisa Helps. The other two newcomers are Sarah Potts and Laurel Collins who campaigned together with Dubow.
The trio succeeded in a field of 29 candidates because they ran a “listening campaign,” Dubow said. “Instead of telling people, ‘This is good for you,’ asking them, ‘What do you want?’”
They worked hard with the support of hundreds of people and donors, he said. They knocked on countless doors, including in apartment buildings where they hoped to mobilize renters, Dubow said, pointing to his worn shoes.
By the time the results were in, Dubow was confident they’d done the work and found the support necessary to have a good chance.
“I’ve lived with uncertainty for 20 years. I don’t put things on expectation. I work hard and see how the universe responds back. Victoria responded overwhelmingly amazing and that’s what Canada has always done for me.”
First chance to vote, now a councilor
At 34 years old, Dubow brings relative youth to council. He is a renter. At six-foot-four, he stands out in most any crowd. But it’s the story of his life so far that is garnering attention. The election in which he won a council seat was also the first in which he could vote since having become a Canadian citizen a little more than a year earlier.
In 1992, when he was eight, he and his older sister fled the civil war in Somalia by boat. It was a clan conflict with much violence motivated by revenge, he said. Women and children were particularly vulnerable, either as targets of rape or recruits to be child soldiers. “My mother had to rescue us. Brave woman, and I [wish] she were alive to see me succeed and the man I’ve become.”
They were part of an exodus of hundreds of thousands of people.
“A lot [of] people were dying on the boat,” he recalled, saying it was similar to the high number of drownings of migrants in recent years. “It reminds me [of] when I was eight years old. The same things were happening.”
When the boat he was on arrived in Mombasa, the Kenyan government refused to let it land, only relenting under pressure from the international community. Dubow said he remembers the feeling of not being wanted by the overwhelmed Kenyan government, the bravery of people unafraid to risk their lives on the boat, and the need for international intervention.
“All that reminds me the importance of knowing who I am and how far I came,” he said. “If I go back and look in the eyes of that eight-year-old and told him someday, the capital city of British Columbia will elect you, you will be Canadian, I don’t know how that [would] resonate to that eight year old.”
Dubow and his sister ended up in the Utanga (also spelled “Utange”) refugee camp. He remembers fetching water and playing soccer, but not having opportunities to study. “It’s all about running around, playing,” he said. “Not having routine, like where you go to school and come back.”
They were there five years.
When the Kenyan government shut down the camp, some occupants went back to Somalia in hopes the conflict would be temporary. Some were relocated to other refugee camps. Dubow went to Ethiopia, where at 13 he began the first formal education of his life.
He would be there four years until a deteriorating political situation made it feel necessary to move again. “I left Ethiopia because there was a student uprising beginning in 2000 to 2001,” he said. “It reminded us of what happened in Somalia. We know, right? Then we were fearful.”
A Canadian school in Cairo
An aunt lived in Cairo, Egypt, and Dubow was able to get asylum in that country.
He finished high school and enrolled at the then-brand new Cairo campus of Cape Breton University, a school based in Canada. “They came, and I was eager to start education. Boom. It was an amazing opportunity.”
While there, he founded a student enterprise group, part of a network now called Enactus that encourages entrepreneurism as a way to improve people’s lives. “Always I had that passion for including the community,” he said.
He completed a degree in business technology, part of the first cohort to graduate from the school. Nova Scotia’s education minister was at the graduation ceremony in 2008, and Dubow remembers receiving his degree from Canada’s ambassador to Egypt.
Unlike many other countries, Egypt doesn’t allow refugees to work. Despite lacking a work permit, Dubow found a job the country’s officials would ignore. “I ended up working for human rights organizations because the government didn’t care who works there,” he said. “We were helping refugees and we were doing the work the government would have done.”
He worked in impoverished neighbourhoods in Cairo, helping migrants and refugees get access to health, legal and resettlement services.
“Then the Arab Spring happened,” Dubow said. “The military thought human rights organizations had something to do with the revolution and they started cracking down on those organizations.”
There was no direct threat to him personally, but it was clear it was time to go, he said. “When the revolution happened, my life was at risk.”
To Victoria by backpack
A family contact in Winnipeg began the process to bring Dubow to Canada, and in 2012 he arrived and set about getting to know his new home. “Imagine someone who never had a country, for the first time to have something permanent, is huge. You feel like life has just begun. You were at a pause for many years.”
He spent little time in Winnipeg before taking several months to backpack between there and Vancouver, visiting a list of friends, Canadians and former refugees, he’d met through his work.
While in Regina he learned about a job at the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society, applied, and did the interview over Skype. “I ended up in Victoria and I’ve never looked back since then,” he said, adding that he loves the city and looks forward to working as a councillor with others to make it even better.
He worked at the society for three and a half years with youth, then in 2016 moved over to the Inter-Cultural Association of Victoria to do a job helping connect government-sponsored refugees with local people who could help them settle into their new home.
During that time he has also served on committees for the Canadian Council for Refugees, an experience he says has taken him to every part of the country except Newfoundland for meetings. He is currently co-chair of the council’s working group on immigration and settlement, a role he says he’ll step away from as he begins his council duties.
‘Being a city councillor is not about you’
Deciding to run for a seat on council was difficult, Dubow said. “It took me a while to decide to put my name forward,” he said. “What was weighing heavy on me, that I didn’t decide quickly, was the possibility of being able to sleep consciously knowing the decisions I would have to make.”
The work could be learned, he figured. He knew he was resourceful, resilient and able to work well with others. He could problem solve, connect people, listen and learn.
“The responsibility is the most important thing. Being a city councillor is not about you. It’s about the people.”
Over the course of eight months he talked with the sitting councillors, the mayor and many people in the community. He attended council meetings and neighbourhood association meetings. “I wanted to know what I’m getting into. That took a while.”
It also helped him build on his wide community of contacts and supporters. His Twitter feed includes endorsements from activists like Tony Sprackett, a BCGEU lifetime member, who said, “Sharmarke’s values resonate with me. I’m also impressed by what he has accomplished in establishing himself as a respected voice in the immigrant advocacy community.”
Other endorsers included Anglican Priest Bruce Bryant-Scott, Women’s March Victoria founder Kat Sark, and former Downtown Victoria Business Association general manager Ken Kelly.
“Sharmarke is the new face of Canada and Victoria,” Kelly said. “In our four years of friendship, he has demonstrated to me his passion for being an agent of positive change in our city, his determination to make the lives of others better, and his desire to fully understand all dimensions of an issue before taking a position.”
Former CBC radio host and Green Party candidate Jo-Ann Roberts said, “He has a quick mind, a kind heart and a thoughtful nature.”
While we were having coffee, business owner Rob Reid, himself a former candidate for mayor, came by to congratulate Dubow on the win and give him his business card.
The range of supporters reflects Dubow’s observation that local politics is about community building, not ideology.
He said he accepts that he’s bound to make mistakes, but that he’ll do his best to work with everyone and represent people who voted for him and people who didn’t. “This is a huge responsibility,” he said.
Diversity on council
Dubow said his background gives him an understanding of how important it is to look after one another, but his views are shaped by a variety of factors.
“One thing people should understand is not only I bring such a unique perspective on council, but I’m also a young person, I’m a renter and I’m someone who in my community work is known for bringing different people together and I look forward building bridges and relationships.”
He’s also the first black person elected in Victoria “since the modern history of Canada,” he said, noting that many of the city’s leaders before B.C. joined Confederation were black. “There were a lot of black business people in Victoria. They played a huge role.”
A diverse council is desirable, and it’s great that new Canadians see themselves reflected at city hall, but individuals bring all their life experience to the work, he said.
“When we speak about diversity, it’s age as well. Now we have more young city councillors. Previously there was only one renter. Now there are more renters, which is exciting. Now there are four renters, I believe.” That matters in a city where 60 per cent of people rent their homes, he said. “Now we have young women, which is powerful.”
His hope is their work will make the city more affordable, inclusive and thriving. During the campaign, he said, “One of the things that kept coming up, from all walks of life, is the affordability issue, the housing issue,” he said, recalling someone he met who was working in construction but unable to find housing they could afford.
In a city faced with serious social issues, it’s important to hear people’s stories in order to build understanding and empathy, he said. “I know that because I’ve walked with the most vulnerable,” he said. “I’ve heard stories of resilience. People are not helpless. People are overwhelmed because of the conditions they’re in, and we can never measure that condition unless we hear of people’s stories.”
What then, makes one person resilient, as he has proven to be, while another becomes overwhelmed? “That would make excellent research. It’s not simple as that,” he said. “What has helped me is the way I’ve given meaning to my own story and the way I give meaning to my suffering and my challenge.”
Even as a former refugee, his story might be similar to many others, but not the same as anyone else’s. “I might have access to things other people didn’t have access to,” he said. “It’s hard to say. I will leave that to the researchers and the psychologists, and whoever the experts are on that, but it’s hard to say.”
Asked where he sees himself in the future, Dubow talked about his desire to have a family and to help make Victoria the kind of place where people can afford to raise children.
“I hope I continue to work so young families and new families could afford to live here. So yes, 10 or 15 years from now, I’d like to have my own family.”