Human rights activist Haile Kiflai receives Canada 150 Award

Human rights activist Haile Kiflai receives Canada 150 Award

It’s part of his personality. “When he believes in a cause,” said Ms. Kennedy, “he goes all out to act on it. No words can describe Haile fittingly. He seems soft on the outside, but inside he is a fighter.”

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Haile Kiflai received a Canada 150 Sesquicentennial Award of Recognition from Kitchener Centre Liberal MP Raj Saini on December 9, 2017 for the tremendous contribution he has made in the areas of advocacy for human rights, refugees, community service, and the  volunteer work he has done to assist Eritrean Canadians.

“I never ever expected to receive this award,” said Kiflai. “I was surprised when I got the news from my MP’s office. As a blind man of African descent, I am extremely happy that I have been recognized in my community and I have been selected for this award.”

Kiflai might not have expected this award, but the people who know him are not surprised at all to see this happen as they have witnessed that Kiflai’s disability hasn’t stopped him from becoming the most productive member of his community both before and after he came to Canada as a refugee.

“For Kiflai, blindness is not a handicap,” said Abdu Habib, a human right activist, “but one of the hundreds of normal characteristics with which anyone must live.  Any other characteristic could have imposed some sort of limitation on him, but his blindness neither restricted the range of possibility or flexibility for him to do what sighted people can do and achieve academically, socially, or professionally.”

Kiflai became visually impaired at a young age due to illness, but he climbed every academic, social and professional ladder successfully. He earned a B.A. degree from the University of Asmara, Eritrea, by using the limited resources he had to pursue his education. Even after he arrived in Canada, he acquired several certificates on human resources management and finance that could expand his professional skills in the full time work he does with the Bank of Montreal. His social network is broad and vast, and touches every individual who has contact with him.

“Kiflai is a person who respects every individual, especially with  regard to race or ethnicity”, said Yoke Kennedy, a settlement worker at the Kitchener-Waterloo Multicultural Center, one of the nominators. “He once said to me that being blind also means he is racially colour blind. This is indeed true. Among his many co-sponsors are people of all races and countries of origin, including home-grown Canadians.”

Mr. Kiflai has been a champion in the Eritrean Canadian community since he arrived in Canada in 2001. He played a crucial role in co-founding Meftih—a community newspaper that serves Eritrean Canadians. He has always been there to support the mission that can bring the community together and integrate its members into the Canadian system faster by providing valuable insight and expertise. He has been  contributing financially, morally and intellectually. He has been writing articles that can educate members of the community. He has been promoting the agenda of unity and working together during community gatherings on one-to-one interactions with members or leaders of the community.

“While others are overwhelmed or distracted by things that may divide us,” said Kristin Fox, a settlement worker at the Kitchener-Waterloo Multicultural Center and one of his nominators, “Kiflai pushes ahead and focuses on unity and doing whatever he can to help others. He is selfless, articulate and a true leader.”

Kiflai’s human rights and refugee advocacy work are extraordinary. When many Eritrean refugees were stranded in Sudan, Libya and Ethiopia after they fled the dictatorial regime in Eritrea, they were desperate to get help or get the attention of the world. Kiflai arranged a meeting with former Members of Parliament to hold discussions on behalf of those refugees and Eritreans who live in Canada. As a result of his efforts, he and five members of the Eritrean community met with several MPs and shared their concerns about their fellow citizens in the camps and in Canada.

Yoke Kennedy articulated Kiflai’s advocacy for refugees on the nomination letter she submitted with her colleague Kristin Fox.

“Kiflai has been working tirelessly to sponsor refugees from Africa, contributing his time in filling out application forms, gathering community members to collectively help him sponsor refugee after refugee, and donating his own money, in the thousands of dollars, to fulfill the financial responsibility of the sponsorship program.” She added that Kiflai not only sponsors his relatives and friends, but also refugees he has no personal connections with.

The other extraordinary work he did to assist Eritrean refugees in the camps of Ethiopia was advocacy for refugees to have access to education. ”In 2010,” said Yoke Kennedy, “he helped secure 100 seats for Eritrean refugees living in camps in Ethiopia, so that these otherwise underprivileged and displaced young people can attend school at Addis Ababa University.”

Kristin Fox, one of Mr. kiflai’s nominators, is inspired by his commitment. She knows first hand from her clients the challenges newcomers face to settle here.

“While Canada is a magnificent place to live, “ said Kristin Fox, “ it is not easy settling in a new country away from the land you once called home. There are many barriers and challenges that come with that but Haile has never let those barriers hold him back. His sincerity and dedication despite the barriers he has faced in the past, and the added challenge of the fact he is blind impresses me.”

Kiflai came as refugee to Canada in June 2001. Like any refugee, he had to overcome several challenges in settling in Canada. Finding an immigration lawyer, an apartment to rent, dealing with the weather and learning about Canadian culture and values were some of the challenging things that overwhelms any refugee. However, Kiflai is not like any refugee. He is visually impaired. That triples the challenges that ordinary people face.

“As a blind refugee,” said Kiflai, “I had some special needs that could be met with time, needs such as mobility challenges, difficulties with daily living skills such as getting my daily food from the kitchen, house cleaning and others.” However, he expressed his gratitude for the support he received from organizations like Balance, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, Woodgreen Community Centre and friends to overcome his obstacles. “I started walking in Toronto independently in less than a year after my arrival in Canada.” He added that he obtained employment at the Bank of Montreal two years after he arrived in Canada.

That’s why Ms. Fox describes him as an Olympic runner. “I imagine Haile as an Olympic runner clearing any hurdle that comes his way. Nothing is insurmountable. I feel like although most of us have 24 hours in a day, Kiflai seems to have found a way to squeeze in 36, the way he fits in all that he does on top of his job and spending time with his wonderful family.”

Kiflai describes his disability as his greatest motivation. “If you live a challenging life, you become so motivated to defeat your challenges, to stand up for yourself and to be independent,” he said. His other motivating factor is also the current situation in Eritrea and its people. He said that it bothers him to hear of thousands of Eritrean refugees fleeing their country, dying in the Sahara Desert, drawn into the Mediterranean Sea and being victims of human and organ smugglers.“ As a human being, it is very hard for me to simply sit and watch when the organs of my brothers and sisters are being harvested. “

It’s part of his personality. “When he believes in a cause,” said Ms. Kennedy, “he goes all out to act on it. No words can describe Haile fittingly. He seems soft on the outside, but inside he is a fighter.”

The 338 federal members of parliament were each assigned 20 limited edition pins to award to constituents to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday. And last Saturday, Kitchener Centre Liberal MP Raj Saini awarded pins to16 individuals and five organizations who had demonstrated one of the four pillars of the Canada’s 150 celebrations: diversity and inclusion; national reconciliation of indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians; environmental stewardship; and youth matters. The awards ceremony was held at the Kitchener Public Library on Dec. 9.

Abdu Habib describes the award that Kiflai received as more than an award.” It is a statement that shows his status in the community will help him continue in giving to the community with more dedication and excitement. That will lead him to greater social mobility in the ladder of community leadership. Now he has started climbing the ladder and nothing will thwart his advance towards higher leadership posts.” Habib added that the Kiflai’s award  will inspire the whole community besides his children. “I heard two women, who came to congratulate him after receiving the award at the Hall, calling him, ‘My Hero’. That speaks volumes. This is to say that the impact is three-fold: on him, on his immediate family, and on the community at large.”

Mr. Kiflai is aware of the magnitude of this prestigious award. That’s why he describes it as a debt. “It is good to receive an award as it keeps your moral so high, and increases your motivation,” said Kiflai. “The extra motivation that you get from receiving an award pushes and encourages you to do more.” As always, he is determined to do more to help others by enjoying the support of his family.  

Kiflai, a family man and father of three, always credits his wife and children for his achievement.”I wouldn’t be able to do even a single activity without the support of my respected and beloved wife, Lemlem.” He expressed his gratitude to his wife for her relentless efforts in supporting him in his day-to-day activities. He also thanked his children—Waltay, Naomi and Kenaan—for their unconditional love and support in keeping him moving.

What vividly differentiates Kiflai from the crowd is his great personality. He is very grateful for the support he has received from everyone in earning this award. Ekram Abdelwasie Suleman is one of them. “Since her early childhood, more than half of my volunteer work was accomplished due to her extraordinary support.” He added that Abdelwasie put together most of his PowerPoint presentations and other projects that he used for his advocacy work for more than ten years. He also expressed his heartfelt gratitude to Yoke and Kristin who nominated him for this award, and MP Raj Saini’s office for recognizing his positive contribution to society.

The members of the Eritrean community have known Kiflai as a great leader, excellent collaborator, team player and motivator in every social or community organization he is involved in. It’s a great pride and a source of inspiration for the Eritrean Canadian community to see that he has now been recognized at the national level for the contribution he has made to life in Canada.

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