Stories of Children, War, and Family Separation in the Oral History Collection at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21

(Updated December 4, 2020)

Introduction: Oral Histories and Childhood Experiences of War and Family Separation

Oral histories are used in Museum research reports, in permanent and travelling exhibitions, on the Museum’s website, and by external researchers and other third parties. We still have much to learn from the oral history interviews, but one theme clearly reflected in many of them is war and dislocation. With the assistance of Alexandra Weller, a summer intern from Western University’s MA in Public History Program, we identified 39 interviews that most obviously reflected this theme. The people interviewed came to Canada from countries in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas. All arrived in Canada between 1940 and 2009. From these interviews, we identified a number of subthemes, including: leaving home, family relations, childhood experiences, individual agency, trauma, adjusting to life in Canada, activism and advocacy in Canada, and returning home.

I would like to share with you some insights from one of the subthemes: childhood experiences. About half of the interviews in our study involve people who had experiences of war and/or dislocation as children. There are many related topics that emerge from these interviews, including children who were separated from their families as a result of war. Thelma Freedman and Monybany Monyang Dau both lived this experience, and they both shared their stories with Museum historians. Although there are some similarities in their experiences, their stories are from different times and places, and the impact of war and degree of hardship also differed, so they do not offer any generalizations about children, dislocation, and war. They can, however, give us insights into how individual people experience and reflect upon broader events that can be both heartbreaking and difficult to comprehend or disentangle.

Thelma Freedman: Evacuating to Canada during the Second World War

Thelma Freedman was interviewed in 1998. She was born in London, England, and was evacuated from Britain during the Second World War.[1] Thelma and her sister Marion were sent to Canada through the Children’s Overseas Reception Board (CORB), an organization sponsored by the British government that sent children abroad, including Canada, for temporary, war-time, exile.[2]

Thelma’s parents were only given hours’ notice that Thelma and Marion would be leaving for Canada.[3] With one change of clothes, gas masks, and a few other items, the sisters left school in the middle of the night with their parents in August, 1940. According to Thelma, her mother “drilled in our heads to stay together,” both during the trans-Atlantic crossing, and after arriving in Canada, where they lived in Vancouver with a family that included three daughters. Thelma and Marion became quite close to the family. The other girls were like sisters to them, and their parents, Gladys and Harold, became auntie and uncle to Thelma and Marion. Thelma and her sister generally had a positive experience in Vancouver. Thelma acknowledges that they were “very, very lucky.” Thelma’s parents went to Vancouver when the war was over, and spent time in the household. Her parents did not always see eye-to-eye with the girls’ Canadian “auntie” and “uncle,” for example, about going to Friday-night church dances and staying out late.

The Challenges of Reuniting with Family and Returning to England

Thelma’s parents decided to return to England, but the girls chose to stay in Canada. “I mean, we were Canadian.” The girls eventually received notice from the British consul through their parents that they would have to go home. Gladys and Harold tried to legally adopt them but were not permitted to do so. Thelma and Marion returned to England, again via Halifax, in October 1947.

Re-adjusting to life in England proved to be a challenge. The house they had lived in previously had been bombed out, and food and clothing were still on ration. Their mother wanted to do everything for them. She also did not want them to receive letters from their Canadian family. According to Thelma, “I was home, but I wasn’t.” Eventually, Thelma began to re-connect with her parents: “I seemed to get to know mom and dad a little bit in a deeper way, and I grew to understand my mother’s way of thinking more.” Thelma thought that her mother had regrets about sending the girls to Canada, because she felt the Canadian aunt and uncle had “stolen the love that was supposed to be for her.”

Monybany Minyang Dau: Becoming a Child Soldier and Leaving to Receive an Education

Until the Pier 21 interpretive centre became the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in February 2011, the interviews in the collection were with people like Thelma Freedman who had a connection to Pier 21. Since then, we have been focusing on interviews that reflect our mandate as a national Museum by exploring the theme of immigration to Canada more broadly. Monybany Minyang Dau, for instance, who was interviewed in 2012, fled Sudan as a child during the Second Sudanese Civil War, and came to Canada as a young adult after spending time in Ethiopia and Cuba.[4] He was born in the mid-1970s, and was in elementary school when the war broke out. Both the Sudanese army and the rebels attacked his village. At the age of nine, he told his mother he wanted to join the rebels. Monybany remembers his mother saying: “You are so little, you cannot do this.” The next day, he left. He walked to Ethiopia, where he spent time in a camp before joining the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), becoming a child soldier. Many children did not survive, but Monybany says he was “lucky,” as he was placed in the headquarters of a commander and was not generally sent to the front line.

A few years later, he was sent to Cuba, along with other child soldiers, because Cuba offered them the opportunity to receive an education. They were welcomed and taken care of in Cuba. “Without them knowing us, some of them broke into tears when they saw the condition that we came from, and they were so, so generous to us.” It took him some time to adjust to being treated as a child. In fact, he, also, had to realize that he was a child. “Until I saw my picture one day… I didn’t know how short I was, and how small I was.”

Immigrating to Canada and Reconnecting with Family

Monybany spent 13 years in Cuba, and during this time, he worked to re-connect with his family. Through the United Nations (UN), and through them the International Red Cross (IRC), Monybany’s name was circulated at various refugee camps, and his mother, two sisters and brother-in-law eventually got his name and wrote to him. He learned of all the people in his family who had died, including his father. His mother was ill, and he started to try and figure out how he could support his family from afar. The opportunity had arisen to come to Canada, and he thought this might allow him to work and send money back to his family. He settled in Edmonton in 1998. He helped his mother and aunt move to Uganda, and brought his sister to Canada.

In his interview, Monybany remembered the emotional first conversation he had with his mother. He had not seen her or spoken with her since leaving Sudan as a nine-year-old boy. She sang songs he had known as a boy, and called him by the nicknames they both remembered. Partly, this was to confirm that it was Monybany. When his mother realized it was in fact an adult Monybany, everyone started laughing, and then crying. His mother told him not to return home because it was too dangerous. “I know you are alive, and that is enough for me.” In 2002, Monybany travelled to Uganda, and, finally, reunited with his mother.[5]

Uniqueness and Common Threads in Two Stories about Childhood Familial Separation and War

Thelma and Monybany’s stories are unique, and, as noted above, they do not offer any commonalities about children and family separation and war. They do allow us to gain a glimpse of what it was like to be children living through those experiences – the Second World War in England and the Second Sudanese Civil War. Thelma’s experiences of living with a welcoming family as a child dislocated by war were vastly different from Monybany’s walk to Ethiopia and time as a child soldier. Despite these and other significant differences, there are also some similarities in Thelma and Monybany’s experiences. Both worked to understand who they were in the midst of the drastic changes caused by war – Thelma becoming Canadian in Vancouver, Monybany realizing in Cuba that he was in fact a child. Part of the richness of oral history interviews is the meaning that people ascribe to the events they have lived through, and in both interviews we see Monybany and Thelma reflecting, as adults, upon their experiences as children. Both, for instance, talk about being “lucky” in the context of the circumstances in which they found themselves. These subjective, eye-witness experiences are part of the richness of oral history as a primary source for research.

Another common thread is that both of their personal experiences were embedded in broader processes, not just of war, but also of international organizations like the CORB, the UN and the IRC, working to help children dislocated by war. Both benefitted from the kindness of people who initially were strangers – Thelma’s new aunt and uncle in Canada, and the people greeting Monybany upon arrival in Cuba. Finally, perhaps the most significant similarity in Thelma and Monybany’s stories is that both held on to familial bonds, albeit sometimes tenuously, and were able to eventually reconnect with family members.

Conclusion: Rich Perspectives from Oral Histories

Although the oral history stories discussed here are notably different in content, they both shed light on the subtheme of war and familial separation as understood by children, reflecting on the ways in which oral histories can tackle broad events from a variety of rich perspectives. Separately and side-by-side, the interviews contain multiple veins for researchers to follow. We look forward to learning more from Monybany Minyang Dau and Thelma Freedman, as well as the other people in the study who have shared their life stories with Museum historians, and through us, with people across the country. We are thankful to them for all that they have to teach us in our process of making meaning about these difficult but important topics.

  1. Thelma Freedman, interview by James Morrison, May 28, 1998, in Toronto, ON, 98.05.28TF, Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21.
  2. The program was cancelled in 1940 after SS City of Benares was torpedoed and sunk en route to Canada, and 77 CORB-sponsored children on board died. See Michael Fethney, The Absurd and the Brave: CORB – The True Account of the British Government’s World War II Evacuation of Children Overseas (Sussex: Book Guild, 2000): 146, 151-156, 304.
  3. To hear Thelma talk about being evacuated during the war: Oral History 98.05.28TF with Thelma Freedman.
  4. Monybany Minyang Dau, interview by Cassidy Bankson, November 25, 2012, Red Deer, AB, 12.11.25MMD, Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21.
  5. For more on Monybany’s story on the Museum’s website, please see: “Monybany Mingyang Dau: Experience with Racism and Discrimination,” /cd1/monybany-dau . Monybany also tells his story through The Ladder of My Life: the incredible true story of Monybany Dau, Unveil Studios, 2013

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.