‘I was floored,’ visa officer says of reunion with refugee
Retired immigration officer describes being overcome with emotion when he reunited with a refugee he helped establish a new life in Canada.
Dennis Scown had the all-powerful job of deciding who could and couldn’t come to Canada.
Throughout his 35-year career with the immigration department — all but six years in overseas visa posts — Scown had interviewed countless prospective immigrants and thousands of refugees hoping to come to Canada for a life away from war and persecution.
In his first management posting, he was assigned to the Islamabad visa office in Pakistan in 1983, where he supervised two inexperienced line officers and was in charge of Ottawa’s low-key resettlement plan for the many Baha’i refugees fleeing neighbouring Iran.
Then a father of two young boys, Scown was a seasoned immigration officer, previously involved in the processing of migrants from former Eastern European countries during his four years at visa posts in London and Vienna, as well as being part of the team tasked with resettling thousands of Vietnamese refugees to Canada.
By his own estimate, he had personally interviewed more than 100 Baha’i families in his three years in Islamabad.
“You always wondered how all these people you sent to Canada would do. You take ownership of a case. You want to make sure the decision you make is good for the family and it is good for Canada,” said Scown, 69, who has an undergraduate degree in history and a master’s in political science from the University of Calgary. “But the chance of me remembering an individual family I have interviewed is nil.”
Scown gave it little thought when he was invited to be a presenter at an academic conference in Ottawa in September about Canada’s Baha’i community and received a dinner invitation fromAfsoon Donna Houshidari, a lawyer and one of the other speakers on his panel.
“I thought this is pretty cool and we would have a chance to talk and get to know each other before the conference,” he said. “I had worked in immigration and I thought she was interested in the process and the nuts and bolts of that.”
Little did Scown know the dinner invitation was a plot by Houshidari to have her mother identify whether the man was the same immigration officer who saved the family from a life in limbo three decades earlier.
“The door opened. Of course, I couldn’t recognize them. I had black hair and a black beard then. Last I saw her, Afsoon was 4. We were sitting side by side and Afsoon brought out this IMM 1000 (landing paper),” recalled Scown, who retired in 2008 after his final posting in Damascus, Syria.
“I paused and was dumbstruck. I was floored. I had never met anybody I’d processed and came to Canada. Seeing how successfully the family had adapted and how Canadian they were, I got really emotional. It’s just incredible.”
The rest of the evening, Houshidari and her mother shared with their guests the story of how they settled here and thrived.
The next day, sitting next to Houshidari at their panel discussion, Scown said he broke down in tears at one point.
“Afsoon and her family are an example of how good Canada’s refugee program can be. It is what Canada was founded on. I’m just so proud of them. It summed up the best part of my job,” said Scown. “She is the poster child of a successful refugee story.”