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When building a wall, ‘every brick has its value’

By Peter Mazereeuw      

Furio De Angelis is one of those people who can say his work is his passion. As the UN High Commission for Refugees' new representative in Canada, Mr. De Angelis is fulfilling his long-held desire to help make a difference in the lives of those in need.

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Furio De Angelis is one of those people who can say his work is his passion. As the UN High Commission for Refugees' new representative in Canada, Mr. De Angelis is fulfilling his long-held desire to help make a difference in the lives of those in need.

"Since my very early ages, I was always rather curious and interested in international affairs," says the native of Italy. "So I started travelling a lot when I was a student; I was interested in seeing how other people live and who they are, these people who are beyond our horizon and local life.

"It was a surprise and shock to see that there are parts of the world which don't live as comfortably as I was, and it grew this interest in me that [while] travelling, you should do something to see that you provide a little contribution."

Mr. De Angelis says his time at university helped him decide how to pursue this interest in international affairs as a professional: by working at the United Nations. After 10 years working with non-profits, he finally arrived at the UNHCR.

Mr. De Angelis, 54, began his posting in Ottawa just a few weeks ago, taking over from the departing Abraham Abraham. He comes to Canada having spent more than two decades with the UNHCR. Aside from four years at the UNHCR headquarters in Geneva, this is the first time he has been posted in a country that is not in a region of conflict.

"It is a highly developed country, and life is different of course," he says of Canada. "My work will also be different because we don't have the immediate [concerns] that we have in regions of conflict."

Rather, he says his job will be to both encourage Canada to maintain its commitments to helping refugees, and work to increase support for the UNHCR among the Canadian population.

"Canada is a very important country for UNHCR because it is a one of the most important donor countries," Mr. De Angelis says. "It is also a country of resettlement."

Canada resettles roughly 12,000 refugees from overseas every year, he says. "Canada, after the USA, is the largest donor of resettlement places…. This is an enormous signal of Canada's commitment to the international protection of refugees."

Mr. De Angelis arrives in Canada at a time when refugee issues are a hot topic, with the federal government targeting failed asylum seekers with alleged war and criminal records.

Mr. De Angelis stresses that each case must be determined on its own merits. However, if the accused are found to have committed war crimes, international law allows for them to be deported regardless of legitimate claims for refugee status, he says.

"Persons who have committed war crimes, crimes against humanity, or very serious non-political crimes," he says, "there are special provisions in the [UN] convention [on refugees] to actually authorize states to exclude refugees from the benefits of international refugee protection."

Mr. De Angelis comes to Canada after a posting in Ukraine, a country that mirrors Canada in its high volume of refugee traffic. But that's where the similarities end, says Mr. De Angelis.

"It is not only another continent, it is another world in [some] respects," he says, explaining that Ukraine has become a sort of hub for migrants and refugees from other countries trying to enter the EU.

Mr. De Angelis has been posted throughout Europe, Africa and the Middle East, and spent time as far afield as the tiny island nation of Nauru in the Pacific Ocean. But he says his first posting remains his favourite.

"Sometimes postings are a little bit like sentimental life," he says. "Your first posting, you don't forget it." The destination was Belgrade in 1987, which was a part of Yugoslavia at the time.

Still, by the time Mr. De Angelis set foot in Belgrade he had already gotten a glimpse of Canada, having spent a few days in Toronto and Algonquin Park when he travelled here during his youth.

"I really [kept] this very strong impression of these few days that I was [in Canada]," he says, "and this helped me to be able to [keep] in my imagination over the years the greatness and the potential of this country."

He decided to take that jaunt through Ontario during a trip to see his brother, who was studying in the United States at the time.

Mr. De Angelis will soon be joined in Canada by his wife, Hiromi De Angelis, who originally hails from Japan. He met Hiromi, a kindergarten teacher, when she was working with a Japanese school in Rome connected to the Japanese Embassy. At the time he was working with an organization in Rome that promoted inter-cultural learning programs.

Mr. De Angelis and his wife have two teenaged daughters, who will remain in Europe to finish their studies. Elena is studying oriental languages at the University of Venice, and Sara is finishing high school at the Atlantic College in the UK.

Mr. De Angelis says this will be the first time he has been assigned to a post where he and his wife will leave the children behind.

"Sooner or later that must come, because it is the law of nature," he says, "but it is also true that this is the life that we are living as international civil servants."

Still, he considers himself lucky to have kept his family together for most of his career with the UNHCR, which often posts its diplomats to designated non-family duty stations.

"This is part of our work and it becomes part of our life, and children grow up knowing they have periods in which they don't see their father or their mother," he says.

As he awaits the arrival of his wife, Mr. De Angelis is trying to familiarize himself with the city they will call home for the next few years, and he says his staff are eager to lend a hand.

"One of the first things my colleagues did when I arrived was to take me to Preston Street," he says, referring to the street around which Ottawa's Little Italy has grown. "Actually, that's the first thing I saw in Ottawa."

It's perhaps ironic that Mr. De Angelis's first stop was a neighbourhood in Canada's capital built from the ground up by Italian immigrants. In his own way, the new UNHCR speaks to the value of such new citizens to a society like Canada.

"If you want to build a wall every brick has its value," he says, "so you bring your brick and then the wall sooner or later will be built."

pmazereeuw@embassymag.ca

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