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From IDP to rooted: a refugee’s story

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Refugee – A Memoir Retold
Agnes Sawatsky Pauls as told to Helen Rose Pauls

Review by Arisnel Mesidor

What is the subject?

Refugee: A Memoir Retold by Helen Rose Pauls is the story of a Mennonite refugee’s journey “from peril to the safety of a new home in Canada.” The book is the recounting of the life of Agnes (Natasha) Sawatsky Pauls from being an internally displaced person (IDP) within Russia in 1930 to being a refugee in Germany in 1943 to being a resettled person in Canada in 1948. Agnes and her family along with several other people from her extended family were resettled in Canada with the help of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC).

In 1981, when she was 72 years-old and living in the Fraser Valley, B.C., where she moved after many years of farming in Chilliwack, Agnes told her story to her daughter-in-law, Helen Rose Pauls. Agnes asked her biographer not to publish the memoir until after she dies because she did not want to relive the assaults of the Russian Revolution when “soldiers of the White and Red armies during the civil war…raped, pillaged, and killed with abandon.” Agnes died in April 2013 at the age of 104.

Who is the author?

The author of this memoir, Helen Rose Pauls, is the wife of Agnes’ oldest of three sons, Ernest (Ernie). She is a retired school teacher who farms alongside her husband in Chilliwack, B.C. Helen grew up in the Mennonite community of Arnold on the Sumas Flats in Abbotsford, B.C., and enjoys being part of committees. She is a member at Sardis Community (MB) Church, Abbotsford, B.C.

Why this book?

As the Migration and Resettlement Program Coordinator at MCC Manitoba, I facilitate refugee sponsorships from all over the world for resettlement in Manitoba. As a result, I am naturally curious about books on refugees. I was particularly interested in this book because it is concerning a former Mennonite refugee who was able to be resettled in Canada through the work of MCC. In other words, if the resettlement happened in the last five years, I would have been part of the story.

Not only did the book help me understand better the circumstances that sometimes cause people to become refugees and the harshness of the situations they normally go through, but it has also provided me with increased knowledge of who Mennonites are in general.

Regarding the MB Confession of Faith?

Refugee is a biography, not a theological treatise; nevertheless, Agnes’ stories reveal some great insights as far as Mennonites’ religious life and practices are concerned.

Christian music and singing were parts of the families’ regular activities. Agnes’ father George Sawatsky was a choir master and song leader. One of Agnes’ two sisters, Anna, excelled at playing the piano. Every time there were guests visiting that needed entertained, she would play.

In several parts of the story Agnes cites some Bible verses or says things that resonate with the MB Confession of Faith. For example, she attests to our belief in God, according to Article 1 – “almighty in power, perfect in wisdom, righteous in judgment, overflowing in steadfast love,…the Shepherd who rescues the lost and helpless,…a refuge and fortress for those in need” – in a dark moment:

My body shook and retched. All day I had not eaten, filling my mouth with snow to ward off fainting. And now all was hopeless. I would die here alone from hunger or cold, far from my loved ones.

Solemnly, I made a pact with a God I had not addressed for a long time. I promised that I would thank and praise him all my life if he gave me one last chance. That I would help others and do good at every opportunity.

An amazing thing happened. It was as if the heavens opened and I saw God and the angels. A voice spoke. Was it inside me? Above me, I saw soft lights and a pleasant warmth surrounded me. The voice seemed to whisper, “You are my child. Get up. Shake the snow off your clothes and walk to a place that I will show you.”


Key insights

From reading this book we are reminded, once again, that forced migration is a real problem that has plagued our world for a long time.

Forced migration knows no boundaries. It has affected people of all ages and ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds. Many people who were born in North America are children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren of people who came to this part of the world as either economic migrants or resettled refugees.

As we deal with 68.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide today (source: UNHCR / 19 June 2018), each one of us needs to respond however we can.

As others did for Agnes and her family in 1948, you can participate in sponsoring a refugee family for resettlement in a safe country.

If you don’t have an opportunity to be part of a refugee sponsorship undertaking, you can help a newcomer whose path you happen to cross as he or she tries to settle in a new place. “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 19:34).


I did not spot any downside in this book. I approached for what it is – someone’s refugee story and I believe that the author delivered in this regard.

Other relevant information

I personally met the author of the book at the Mennonite Heritage Museum in Abbotsford, B.C., in the summer of 2017. As an amateur Mennonite historian, as she puts it, she volunteers at the museum as a Mennonite historian and tour guide. If you ever happen to be in the Fraser Valley area and would like to meet, Helen, it may be possible at the Mennonite museum.

The self-published book can be found at Inspired Gifts in Yarrow, House of James in Abbotsford, and at the Mennonite Heritage Museum.

Who should read the book

I warmly recommend Refugee: A Memoir Retold by Helen Rose Pauls to anyone who is interested in:

  • getting to know the Mennonites and their background better;
  • understanding MCC’s long-time work with refugees;
  • having a better understanding of what it means to be a refugee.

Favorite quotes

“It was indescribably satisfying to be in a place once more where honest work produced honest gain.”

“Every day we were thankful for the peace and prosperity in [Canada]. The refugee life was over and the roots went down strong and deep, this time for good.”

[Arisnel Mesidor is Migration and Resettlement Program Coordinator at MCC Manitoba, a member of Eglise Communautaire de la Riviere Rouge (MB church), Winnipeg, and an immigration consultatnt.

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