Many Calgarians think of Marlborough Mall as a place they would rather not be after dark. Trying to illustrate this Gar Gar, a candidate in Calgary’s municipal election last year, said. “I went to Google, typed in ‘northeast Calgary’ – what I saw was accident on 36th, shooting, drug busting. And those were the only images that popped up.”

However, for Gar Gar, the area is  a part of this city that represents something different. At 17, Gar Gar had just recently come to Canada as a South Sudanese refugee and Marlborough station is where all the young adults in his community meet.

The station acted as a hub, allowing northeast kids to travel to the old Talisman Centre, where they could meet up with other kids around the city to play basketball and hang out. For a new Canadian who had not yet learned the local language or local customs, it was an essential activity.

“That’s where I felt comfortable – there are people who started to translate. All the people speak English, and you start seeing some of the other youth try to help you.”

Twelve years later, Gar Gar has taken an unsuccessful crack at city politics. Despite coming short in his run for city council, he still feels he can offer a positive perspective for the community.

Gar Gar was born a “runner” in Khartoum, Sudan in 1987. The origin of the “runner” moniker comes from his mother being eight months pregnant when his family fled from what is now South Sudan. In 2000, Gar Gar and his family would once again be forced to run. They fled to Egypt from their new home in Sudan’s capital city of Khartoum, because the Sudanese government was recruiting child soldiers.

The first time Gar Gar saw Calgary was when his brother, who came to Canada in 2002, sent pictures of the snowy city to his family in Egypt. It was his brother who would sponsor his family when they came as refugees in 2005. Gar Gar was 17.

“I think that was the hardest age because you are put into responsibilities before you even know them.”

Things would become even harder for Gar Gar because of the education system here. Expecting to be enrolled in high school classes, he was enrolled in what is known as a “bridge program.” He would be the first student to be enrolled in a class which had been created specifically for South-Sudanese refugees in his age group.

“When you meet people that see something in you – it gives you courage” – Gar Gar

The purpose of the class is to bring students who are near graduation, and who lack a proficiency in English, up to an academic standard where they can continue studying after 18. Gar Gar thought of it more like “kindergarten.”

Leslie Davies taught Gar Gar’s class. Part of the problem is that at that time, the school had very little access to adult low-literacy books.

“It was very challenging for them because of course when you go to that level of English, learning your letters and basic sight words, you’re operating at a grade one level. So, the content of what books we had is for small children,” said Davies.

Despite, those challenges, Gar Gar eventually ended up going to  SAIT for his bachelor in business administration. And it was there that he first decided to exercise his interest in politics.

“Giving back,” Gar Gar replied, when asked why he successfully ran for president of SAIT’s Students’ Association.

“Calgary has given me a lot of opportunities,” Gar Gar said, later adding, “When I went to SAIT, it opened a lot of doors and got me to step out of my boundaries and challenge myself.”

Running wasn’t difficult for Gar Gar. He just asked students what they would like to see changed to create his platform.

“Most of the issues were so easy to be solved. But no one is taking action to solve them.”

After he was elected, he tried to make parking more sustainable by encouraging carpooling, and advocated for open educational resources. Gar Gar was also able to represent the view of international students, who he says faced some of the same integration he experienced  when he first came to Canada.

Gar Gar’s success in student politics also did something else: it changed his perspective on what he could achieve.

“It shows that, first of all, people do respect your opinion, and people do appreciate when you actually stand up and want to do something.”

Beginning to challenge himself and having an opportunity to represent the voices of students, Gar Gar now  believed that he could promote positive change in his community as well. That’s why he took a run at city council this past election.

Gar Gar ran a campaign for the Ward 10 seat, promising to make it a safer community with more business access.

In the end, the rookie candidate was unsuccessful, losing to veteran city councillor Ray Jones.

But Gar Gar isn’t discouraged. He values the experience he gained running for  the election. He’s even being encouraged by constituents to run in the next provincial election.  

While Gar Gar is certainly open to the possibility of another run for government, he isn’t committing to anything quite yet. However,  he is inspired by the positive response from members in his community.

“When you meet people that see something in you – it gives you courage.”  

bwells@cjournal.ca

Editor: Sarah Kirk | skirk@cjournal.ca