John Smith is determined to carry on Harry Leslie Smith’s legacy of advocating for refugees
In a previous story, UNHCR Canada wrote about Harry Leslie Smith, the 95-year-old social justice activist who was travelling the world advocating for refugees, his every thoughtful, biting, and passionate comment tracked by over 250,000 Twitter followers. Sadly, Harry died of pneumonia on November 28, 2018, in Belleville, Ontario, held tenderly in the arms of his son John, the equally passionate caretaker of his father’s legacy.
Known as “the world’s oldest rebel,” the British-born social welfare advocate, author and Second World War veteran was driven by his impoverished childhood and wartime experiences to change the world for the better.
Almost two months after Harry’s death, we spoke to John as he was planning his next trips to several refugee camps, including a spring journey to the asylum-seekers’ caravan camp in Tijuana, Mexico. The caravan, one of several that has formed since late 2018, is made up of asylum seekers and migrants from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, all hoping to cross the border into Mexico and then California.
John is continuing Harry’s mission to shine a light on the plight of refugees by visiting the people of the caravan to show solidarity, as well as meeting with UNHCR staff and media. “I expect to see great despair in the camp,” John says. “I’ve seen it before at other camps like this. But I also expect to see great optimism, as people believe they will get a fair shake from another country—and the compassion and humanity that everybody deserves.”He also says he expects to see UNHCR staff “doing a brilliant job, as they do in all the crisis spots,” referring to the agency’s presence in southern Mexico, helping to provide water, food, shelter and registration assistance.
Before he died, Harry had begun writing a book on his experiences with refugees, including his Second World War memories of helping desperate people escaping Germany after the Allied victory—a chapter in his life that had a profound impact on his social activism.
“In time, I will be able to set up a charitable institution in his name that will protect [my father’s] copyrighted works … and will promote the causes of refugees and fighting social injustice.”
John is buoyed by the international outpouring of love and concern shown for his father during his illness and passing a few weeks later. “My dad’s charisma came from emotional honesty. He was a loving man not afraid to show people how vulnerable you can be if you live under the oppression of poverty and hunger, and how it can hurt your development. He knew that the only way to fight that was to develop a greater empathy towards others who are worse off than you.”
The fact that Harry didn’t begin his social activism career until later life, made people respect him even more, John says. “Because of his age he became a living bridge to everyone’s history … In him they saw everything that was good from a time that had many problems, but it also had many ordinary people like my dad who set out to build a better community.”
“Never give up hope; never think that your life is worthless, that your family’s life is worthless. Survive. Always survive—and if that means leaving your country…the message will always be that you must survive for yourself and your family.”
When he reaches Mexico, John’s message to refugees there, and all around the world, embodies Harry’s legacy: “Never give up hope; never think that your life is worthless, that your family’s life is worthless. Survive. Always survive—and if that means leaving your country and forging ahead because of war or fear of death from a totalitarian government, the message will always be that you must survive for yourself and your family—and hopefully forge a new life.”
Written by Fiona Irvine-Goulet for UNHCR Canada.