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Diocesan News

Working with refugees ‘a gift and privilege’

By James Buchok


WINNIPEG — The stream of asylum seekers crossing the U.S. border on foot into Canada at Emerson, Man., is not expected to stop any time soon and will, in fact, only grow as spring approaches, say officials in both the U.S. and Canada.

So far in 2017, 69 people have trekked for as long as six hours over farm fields and via secluded roads to reach Canada, many in dangerously cold temperatures, some with children and babies. Some have lost fingers and toes to the cold.

They are picked up by RCMP, questioned and then taken to the Canada Border Services Agency in Emerson where they are processed, fingerprinted and photographed and then cleared to go. Their next stop is likely the community hall in Emerson.

The Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council, based in Winnipeg, has been shuttling refugee claimants to Winnipeg where they find them shelter and provide them with counselling and paralegal help to file their refugee claim. The council is asking the public for financial donations to help the asylum seekers. The Winnipeg Foundation has pledged $33,000 in emergency funding to help the refugee claimants.

The council’s Welcome Place receives federal funding to help government-assisted refugees, as opposed to the recent wave of asylum seekers who have yet to prove before the Immigration and Refugee Board that they’re persons in need of Canada’s protection.

According to U.S. immigration officials, people crossing on foot is nothing new, but the recent wave is due to statements made by the new government in Washington, considered by many to be anti-immigration, and the recently proposed travel ban on people coming to the U.S. from seven predominantly Muslim countries. There are fears U.S. immigration officials could suddenly start arresting anyone who is undocumented.

It is believed many of the asylum seekers are coming from Minneapolis, a seven-hour drive from Emerson, and home to 200,000 ethnic Somalis, the largest Somali community in the U.S. Most of the refugee claimants crossing into Canada at Emerson are Somali, according to the Canadian Border Services Agency. They pay for transport to get somewhere close to the border and then set off into the night.

In the meantime, churches in Manitoba continue the process of sponsoring government-assisted refugees seeking to escape countries besieged by famine or war. The effort requires a small army of volunteers and financial resources to support a refugee family for at least one year.

In the fall of 2015 three churches in Dauphin — Dauphin First United Church, the First Baptist Church and St. Viator’s Roman Catholic Church — started working together to sponsor refugee families, and one year ago they welcomed three families from Syria to Dauphin, 15 people altogether.

In Winnipeg the churches of St. John Brebeuf and St. Paul the Apostle welcomed a Syrian family of five in November. On Feb. 5 St. Paul the Apostle hosted a Meet and Greet for the family and parishioners.

“It was an amazing experience for both the family and the community,” said pastor of St. Paul the Apostle, Rev. Eric Giddins. “Bilal (the husband and father) spoke to the community in English. The family has only been here two months and knew very little English upon arrival. He spoke clearly and graciously about how happy he and his family are to be in Winnipeg to begin their new life. He stated that the family is so grateful for our hospitality, sponsorship, support, and encouragement. This experience has been very meaningful and profound for our parish.”

Tom Bailey-Robertson, pastoral associate at St. John Brebeuf, said the settlement experience “has been wonderful. There’s a group of about a dozen volunteers who are involved with the day-to-day happenings, and another 50 members or so who pitch in. The community’s response has been tremendous. My office is packed with donations and not a week goes by without a message about an item someone wants to donate. Sponsors are responsible for everything: housing, furniture, moving, setting up finances, medical appointments, finding a school for the kids, getting the parents into English classes. However, it’s easy to help because this family is so gracious. They are eager to be independent and it’s very rewarding to be around them. “

Angela Tessier, a volunteer with the St. Paul the Apostle-Brebeuf group, said, “It is a gift and privilege to walk the journey with them. We can only be impressed with their tenacity, courage and resiliency. While there have been challenges, primarily language, there have been moments of sheer joy like the sight of the children hurtling down a hill on a toboggan for the first time, and the smile on the daughter’s face when she arrives in from school, exhausted but thrilled that she can go to school. There were also moments of brilliant coincidences, where perhaps God chose to be anonymous, when a translator just appeared when needed or when a childcare space came open or someone knew someone who was able to help out.”

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