MELVILLE, Sask. — In 1990 Sarah Konneh, her husband and infant son were forced to leave their home in Liberia because of a brutal war. This war was followed by other wars, and even when peace returned it was not possible for Sarah to return to Liberia because of fear for the family’s safety.
The resulting life in refugee camps has been all that Sarah has known for the past 26 years. At times food has been scarce and even non-existent, especially at one point when the family was forced to move from one camp to another.
The son that she took with her into that first refugee camp, Samka, is now an adult and has spent most of his life in refugee camps. At times Samka left the camp to find work in Ivory Coast, the country that hosted the refugee camps. This work included work on a rubber farm, and driving cab.
Samka stood by his mother and younger brother, Abdoulaye, after the death of his father. The family also adopted another boy, James Weah, after his mother died in one of the refugee camps.
Sarah and her family’s long ordeal finally ended when their application for a visa was approved and a church group in Canada agreed to sponsor them. St. Henry’s Church in Melville sponsored the family with help from the Archdiocese of Regina social justice department.
The social justice committee at St. Henry’s had been considering refugee sponsorship for quite a while and was spurred on by Pope Francis’ call that each Catholic parish should sponsor at least one refugee family.
St Henry’s pastor Rev. Mitch Burdzy felt refugee sponsorship would be an especially good idea in the Year of Mercy and that parishioners would be generous once the project was started.
In January 2016, a meeting was held to determine if there was enough interest to go ahead. The next month a refugee sponsorship committee was formed, and soon after it was bolstered with representatives from a neighbouring parish, St. Mary’s in Grayson.
The response to the appeal for financial help was overwhelming, and the drive was capped off with a steak supper that was held at the parish in April. At that point the committee decided to suspend fundraising efforts because the target amount of $20,000 had been exceeded.
The committee then waited for a family to be chosen and assigned to the parish. Committee chairs Elmer and Yvette Beutel worked with Bert Pitzel and Abdul Ali from the archdiocese. The nationality and religion of the family were not known until the family was chosen.
The committee felt that refugees accepted by the parish should not be discriminated against because of their religion. This principle took precedence over the concern that Christians and other religious minorities are suffering disproportionately in many parts of the Middle East. Committee member Tom Durham pointed to the fact that Pope Francis appeared not to use religion as a basis for determining who among refugees should receive help.
Recently the committee received details about their family and the news of the family’s arrival. The family’s arrival in the summer was extremely emotional for Sarah and for members of the sponsorship committee.
Josee Roberge-Dyck considered being part of the arrival of the family as one of “the most incredible, heart-warming, fulfilling, life-changing experiences in her entire life. Sarah herself broke down when she realized that she and her family would have beds to sleep on and and a house with multiple rooms. When she composed herself somewhat she was amazed to see that the house, though modest by Canadian standards, even had a basement suite for Samka.
Yvette Beutel was also moved by the experience, referring to the whole refugee sponsorship process as being the “Gospel incarnate” and a life-changing experience for her. Sarah later shared with committee member Sister Theresa Kreiser that the kindess shown to her by the “Canada people” was somewhat like her own commitment when she agreed to adopt her youngest son, James.
The committee now prepares for the task of familiarizing the Liberian family with Canadian culture and integrating them into their new society.