This year mark’s the fiftieth anniversary year of the Ugandan Asian refugee resettlement in Canada. It was the first major resettlement of a non-European refugee community in Canada during the post-war period, following the official de-racialization of Canadian immigration policy in 1962. My mom and her family are part of the nearly 8,000 Ugandan Asian refugees who were resettled in Canada between 1972 and 1974. Her experience served as the foundation for my doctoral thesis and subsequent publication of Gifts From Amin: Ugandan Asian Refugees in Canada which includes in-depth archival research and oral histories with over 50 members of the refugee community. Oral histories, archival documents, artefacts and more from this resettlement are also being collected by Carleton University and showcased in their Uganda Collection. This post explores our family’s trip to East Africa and my mother’s reflections on her returning to her homeland.
On July 25, 2023, my mom set foot in Mbarara, Uganda, almost fifty years after the forced expulsion of roughly 50,000 Ugandan Asians was announced by former President and Military General of Uganda, Idi Amin in 1973. His infamous decree declared that Uganda had no room for “the over 80,000 Asians holding British passports who are sabotaging Uganda’s economy and encouraging corruption”. Ultimately, almost every Ugandan of South Asian descent was forced to leave the country regardless of their citizenship.
For many years my mom was apprehensive about returning to Uganda. She had mixed feelings as she reflected on the trauma of being forcibly displaced at the age of seventeen. However, when we were growing up she fondly recalled childhood memories including many articulate recollections of local East African foods to her three boys. Be it matoke, plantains, peanut curry, ugali, or fresh mangoes from the mango tree in their former backyard, or their daily routines of attending religious ceremonies after school, my mom held fond memories when it came to food and culture in Uganda. She was anxious about returning and witnessing how much life had changed in Uganda and challenge her cherished childhood memories. Scholars note how history alongside our memories are multifaceted and are continuously being reshaped based on the present.
When we first arrived in Kampala from Nairobi my mom’s immediate reflection was on how things had evolved, “at the airport it used to only be white and brown people flying,” thinking back to the 1970s and the high price for booking a flight that was out of reach for many Ugandan Africans. Her observations reflected the realities of the three-tiered race and class hierarchy that was embedded throughout East Africa under colonial rule from the mid 1800s until independence in the 1960s. The system placed white colonialists at the top, brown merchants in the middle, and labouring black Africans at the bottom. While we made our way from the tarmac to the airport terminal, I felt my heartbeat quicken as our first stop would be immigration services. I was acutely aware of my mother’s last experience with Ugandan immigration authorities. As the officer opened her passport and saw her place of birth as Mbarara, Uganda, he smiled and said, “welcome back”. We were immediately relieved, but the interaction articulated the sentiments of most Ugandans we met. Many were curious if my mom still spoke Luganda, Kiswahili or even Runyankore (a local dialect from Mbarara) and happy to see her return after fifty years. There was, however, no mention of Idi Amin or the expulsion.
Still, thoughts of the former president and the trauma of displacement were not far from my mother’s mind. As we sat at the dinner table one evening, my eldest brother asked how it felt after being back in Uganda for two days and her response said it all: “when I see army people with guns it brings back bad memories”. Scholars and humanitarian aid workers emphasize how being forcibly displaced is manifested in a myriad of ways and never leaves our psyche. While resiliency plays a key role in helping individuals cope with trauma along with strong support networks and counselling. So too does expressing one’s emotions in a safe environment or via other outlets. Nevertheless, it was apparent that even after fifty years the sight of an armed guard triggered my mom’s memory of the turbulent ninety-day expulsion period. Thankfully, she was surrounded by family for psychological support. To my mind, her comments also confirmed how in some instances oral histories can promote closure and peace, offering a potential healing process for those who have experienced trauma.
By far the highlight of our trip was returning to Maryhill High School in Mbarara. We were incredibly fortunate that the ascari (security guard) welcomed us on the premises after hearing my mom’s story and encouraged us to speak with the headmaster. Upon stepping into her office, my mom opened up to the headmaster who immediately embraced her with a welcoming smile, exclaiming that she was only a year old when my mother graduated from Maryhill in 1971. From there we went on a personalized tour of the school with the headmaster who happily introduced my mom to every faculty member we met as “a true OG [original gangster – a colloquial term of endearment meaning one of the true originals or alumni] from fifty years ago”.
Walking through the high school campus my mom’s energy was infectious. For us brothers it felt as if we were seeing a teenage version of my mom as she joyously pointed out where her old classrooms were, where the dormitories were, how faculty used to stay onsite, and how her small group of friends that were not part of the Christian community – and had gained special admission to the school based on their high grades – used to travel from their homes together to attend one of Mbarara’s best schools. Upon our return to the hotel my mom recalled how she was “overwhelmed that the standard was still there… my desk was still there, the science classes were still there”. While there had been some minor renovations and an expansion of the high school campus the headmaster confirmed how things have remained relatively the same after all these years.
In an incredible twist of fate, we were able to find my mom’s old home. It had been converted to a FINCA loans and money transfer office. After working for a financial institution – CIBC – for over thirty years in Canada it was fitting that her old home in Mbarara mirrored her career path.
Our trip to Uganda was truly special for our entire family. We had always wanted to see my mom’s hometown and physically be there with her as a source of comfort and support after over fifty years of forced displacement. While we are all still reflecting on what this trip means to us on an individual level, my mom felt a true sense of closure upon returning from Uganda. She has spent the vast majority of her life in Canada, and it was more than a simple bucket list item for her to return to Mbarara with “her boys”. Our experience is but one of many amongst Ugandan Asian refugees and their families who have since visited or even permanently returned and speaks to the wide array of experiences amongst the diaspora community. Upon her return to Canada my mom expressed her gratitude for the ability to visit and with a smile from ear to ear recalling how “in all my life I never thought I would come back to Africa”.
Dr. Shezan Muhammedi is currently an Assistant Director at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) and an Adjunct Research Professor at Carleton University. He recently published the first academic book length study on the Ugandan Asian refugee resettlement in Canada using over 50 oral histories and in-depth archival research titled Gifts from Amin: Ugandan Asians in Canada.
 Idi Amin references a total over 80,000 Ugandan Asians, however, this was based on old census data from the 1960s before some Ugandan Asians had left the country and the majority of scholars place the number closer to 50,000 see Nicholas Van Hear, New Diasporas: The Mass Exodus, Dispersal and Regrouping of Migrant Communities, (London: University Colleges London Press, 1998).
 “The Future of Asians in Uganda,” Uganda Argus, 5 August 1972, 1.
 See: Thomas Butler, ed., Memory: History, Culture and the Mind (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989); Confino, “Collective Memory and Cultural History”; Terry Cook, “Evidence, Memory, Identity, and Community: Four Shifting Archival Paradigms,” Archival Science 13, no. 2–3 (2013): 95–120; Astrid Erll, Ansgar Nünning, and Sara B. Young, eds., Cultural Memory Studies: An International and Interdisciplinary Handbook, (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2008); Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire,” Representations, no. 26 (1989): 7–24, Kendall R. Phillips, ed., Framing Public Memory, Rhetoric, Culture, and Social Critique (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004); Jonathan Franklin William Vance, Death so Noble: Memory, Meaning, and the First World War (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1997).
 The article was reviewed and approved with Shamim Muhammedi’s consent on September 10, 2023 as a matter of sharing authority in oral history practice and honouring her personal historical perspective.
 T. V. Sathyamurthy, The Political Development of Uganda: 1900-1986 (Aldershot: Gower Publishing Company Limited, 1986),
 See Mark Klempner, “Navigating Life Review Interviews with Survivors of Trauma” Oral History Reader in eds. Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson (New York: Routledge, 1998); High, Oral History at the Crossroads; Anna Sheftel and Stacey Zembrzycki, “Only Human: A Reflection on the Ethical and Methodological Challenges of Working with ‘Difficult’ Stories,” Oral History Review 37, no. 2 (2010): 191–214; Kim Lacy Rogers, Selma Leydesdorff, and Graham Dawson, Trauma: Life Stories of Survivors (Transaction Publishers, 2004).