Signs of Agency in Refugee Narratives

(Updated December 4, 2020)

Introduction: Agency in Extreme Circumstances

When people live through extreme circumstances, such as war, they face forces beyond their control. But they also make choices. In this blog, I share insights on individual agency, or the power “to change or affect events or to make choices that influence the course of history.”[1] It is important to talk about agency because of an unfounded perception that refugees have no decision-making power over the circumstances of their lives. But refugees – and other people who experience war, violence or trauma – are also agents who can exert control in situations defined mostly by control being taken away. The act of remembering through an oral history interview is also a form of agency.[2] Below you will read about Czeslaw Tomaszewski’s wartime experiences and his decision to come to Canada; the courage of Lynda Dyck, also during the Second World War; and the resilience of Umeeda Switlo and her mother Lella Umedaly, who left Uganda in the early 1970s. All are based on their oral history interviews, which are held in the Museum’s collection.

Czeslaw Tomaszewski: Inspired by Jack London after the Second World War

Czeslaw Tomaszewski made the choice to come to Canada at the end of the Second World War, inspired by an imaginary idea of North America based on novels he had read.[3] After Germany invaded Poland, and while Czeslaw was still a teenager, he was arrested with one of his brothers and they were interrogated and physically abused. Czeslaw ended up, without his brother, in a concentration camp in Austria. At the end of the war, he spent time in a Displaced Person’s (DP) camp in Bavaria. There was barely any food to eat, but cigarettes, sent by the Polish government in London, circulated in the camp. They could be used as barter and, according to Czeslaw, were “like gold.” Czeslaw began supplying cigarettes to teachers and administrators in the camp. He also attended high school nearby, and began to learn English. Still, “I lost my youth,” Czeslaw says.

He eventually reunited with his brother, who stayed in England after the war. He also learned that his eldest brother and both his parents had died. Czeslaw knew there were options to go to Australia or the United States, but he put his name on a list of people who wanted to come to Canada. Czeslaw was the only member of his family to come to North America. He had been a fan of Jack London, the Californian writer whose novels were inspired by his adventures. The Call of the Wild, for instance, emerged from London’s time in Canada during the Klondike gold rush.[4] When Czeslaw had to find a new country, he focused on Canada because it sounded exotic to him. “As a boy I read quite a few books of Jack London...It shaped in my mind that I am going to go to Canada.”

Lynda Dyck: Fleeing to Poland and Germany from Ukraine During the Second World War

“I am a refugee...and you shouldn’t be doing that.”

Another story of individual agency involves Lynda Dyck, and the courage she demonstrated in the midst of the violence of the Second World War.[5] Born in Ukraine, she was ten years old when her house was bombed. After six months of siege, her family fled for Poland, along with other villagers. The stayed in Russian collective farming villages (kolkhozes) at night and at other times were given food by German soldiers. They were joined by many other families along the way. Military transports and caravans were being bombed, and streets were filled with dead people and dead horses. Lynda chose to see them rather than cover her eyes.

The family eventually spent four months in a camp in Poland, and then went to Arnsberg, Germany, near the North Sea, to work for a wealthy landowner who also had prisoners working on his farm. In 1945, at the end of the war, the recently-freed prisoners started smashing all the glass doors in the main house on the farm. The villa’s owner called for Lynda, a teenager by this time, and asked her to talk to the former prisoners. “Don’t smash all the windows, they have to be replaced,” she told them. They were surprised to hear her speaking Russian, and responded: “Who the hell are you?" Lynda said, “Well, I’m a refugee, but I happen to know the language...and you shouldn’t be doing that.” The soldiers left.

Lynda’s determination continued after the war. She told her parents she needed to go to school, but her mother said no, because they would lose her ration. Lynda insisted, taking the train to Hamburg with her cousin to obtain a certificate giving them permission to go to school. Lynda returned and gave her mother the certificate: “momma, here, this will give you the coupons.” She attended school until her family left to come to Canada in 1947.

Lella Umedaly and Umeeda Switlo: Mother and Daughter Resilience in Uganda

The final narratives come from a mother and daughter, Lella Umedaly and Umeeda Switlo, who fled Uganda in 1972, after President Idi Amin ordered the expulsion of the country’s Asian population.[6] On several occasions, Lella and Umeeda made in-the-moment choices that demonstrate their resilience, a term Umeeda uses to describe both her actions and her mother’s decisions.

Lella, a Montessori teacher, started a school attended by Idi Amin’s children. One day, Idi Amin arrived at the school with his bodyguards to pick up his children. He asked how his children were doing. “Superbly well,” she answered. He then asked if there were any problems. She told him he had not paid the children’s fees in a long time. “Can you come to my office and tell me how much it is?,” he replied, “And I’ll write you a cheque.”

People told Lella it would be too dangerous to go to his office, but she went, and the fees were paid. Her courage in facing Idi Amin directly also manifested in her ability, as her daughter Umeeda points out in their interview, to stay one step ahead of the escalating situation in Uganda: “ was really on top of thing[s]. She had her ear to the ground, listening to gossip about what was going to happen next...she was really resilient.” When they knew they would have to leave the country, Lella packed a chest and shipped it to her brother in Canada. When she realized they would not be able to take money out of the country, she purchased air tickets for various destinations.

Umeeda Leaves Uganda for Canada, Returning Several Decades Later

Lella also made arrangements for then fifteen-year-old Umeeda to leave Uganda. Umeeda arrived at the airport with her family, one suitcase, $100 and some jewelry. They had heard you would not be permitted to take a lot of jewelry out of the country, so three bangles were glued together and two necklaces were intertwined to make them look like one. At the airport, Umeeda was taken to a separate room where she was told to undress and yelled at. Her jewelry was taken off her. “I was pretty well devastated because some of that jewelry had been in our family for a long time.”

In the midst of this exchange, Umeeda heard gunfire. Someone at the airport had been shot by Ugandan troops and in the chaos Umeeda was left alone in the room. She got dressed and grabbed her jewelry from the table, putting it in her bag just as her flight number was being called. “The resilient me came to life,” she recounted in the interview. As she climbed the outdoor steps to board the plane, she could see her parents. “I turned around and I yelled, ‘I got the jewelry, I got the jewelry.’ And my mom said, ‘Shhh...just get in the plane.’”

Umeeda returned to Uganda for the first time, with her daughter, after several decades in Canada. At the airport, memories returned of the day she left as a sad and angry teenager. When the immigration officer asked Umeeda for the required fifty dollars in order to pay her entry visa, Umeeda told the officer she was a Ugandan citizen who had lost everything. The officer asked to see Umeeda’s Ugandan passport, but Umeeda refused to show it, for fear that it would be taken from her. The officer replied: “Madam, Uganda has changed. We’re very sorry. Welcome home.”[7]

Conclusion: Agency as a Constellation of Actions

At a time of loss and upheaval, Czeslaw was able to exert some agency over both his time in the camp (selling cigarettes and learning English) and the future direction of his life by choosing Canada. Lynda made choices along the way also – to see the dead bodies, to stop the destruction of the villa, to continue her education. The choices were an expression of individual agency in various circumstances, but all in the overall context of war and dislocation. Lella chose to go to President Amin’s office, and not wait to see how things unfolded in Uganda. Umeeda reclaimed her jewelry, and chose not to show the immigration officer her Ugandan passport.

Being a refugee can mean choosing where you want to live, standing up to people destroying property, getting belongings out of a country you will soon have to leave, or insisting on being treated with dignity and respect. These are a constellation of thoughts and actions by different people in various times and places. History acts upon people in ways they cannot always control. At the same time, people exercise agency in limiting circumstances, and how they choose to remember and share these experiences also teaches us that people find ways to act upon history.

  1. Lynn Abrams, Oral History Theory (New York: Routledge, 2010), 175.
  2. See Stacey Zembrzycki and Steven High, “’When I Was Your Age’: Bearing Witness in Holocaust Education in Montreal,” in The Canadian Oral History Reader, edited by Kristina R. Llewellyn, Alexander Freund, and Nolan Reilly (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015), 240-242.
  3. Czeslaw Tomaszewski, interviewed by Steven Schwinghamer, August 5, 2008, in Halifax, NS, 08.08.05CT, Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21
  4. “Jack London” Biography. Accessed 12 March, 2018.
  5. Lynda Dyck, interviewed by Amy Garnier, August 24, 2005, in Halifax, NS, 05.08.24LD, Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21.
  6. Umeeda Switlo and Lella Umedaly, interviewed by Emily Burton, February 21, 2014, in Vancouver, BC, 14.02.21USLU, Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21.
  7. Umeeda also recounts this experience in the temporary exhibition Refuge Canada, at the Museum until November 2018.

Emily Burton, PhD

Emily Burton is an Oral Historian at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. She studied oral history as a component of her MA in History, and she holds a doctorate in Canadian History from Dalhousie University. Her current research interest with the oral history collection at the Museum involves peoples’ experiences of war and dislocation.