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Manitoba town rolls out welcome mat for refugees
March 18, 2010
WINNIPEG, Man.— Safe resettlement could not come quickly enough for a Palestinian family that fled violence in Baghdad, Iraq about four years ago and is now living in rural Manitoba.
“My dream is for a good future for my children, ” said Amal Abueraiban when she and her husband, Ziad Abukhousa and their seven children, ages two to 16 arrived at the airport in Winnipeg on February 24. They had been living in the Al Hol refugee camp in the Hasaka desert region of Syria near the Iraq border.
Their new home is in Altona, a community of just under 4,000 people, 115 kilometres (70 miles) south of Winnipeg.
Amal Abueraiban is confident her dream of a good future for her children will come true. The family will have the opportunity to apply for Canadian citizenship and the children will have the opportunity to get an education.
“I think it will be a good life for my family,” she said.
The Abukhousa family is among 50 residents from the Al Hol camp to find safe resettlement in Canada through Mennonite Central Committee Canada’s refugee assistance program—a program that matches refugees eligible for resettlement in Canada with sponsors.
Residents in the Al Hol refugee camp and two other refugee camps along the Iraq-Syria border tried to find safety in Syria when Palestinians in Iraq became targets for violence in the aftermath of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Families living in these camps fled killings, kidnappings, torture and death threats in Iraq, but were not allowed to seek asylum in Syria because Palestinians living in Iraq do not have Iraqi citizenship. Palestinians originally fled to the Gulf region in 1948 following the establishment of the State of Israel.
The sponsoring group that is rolling out the welcome mat for the Abukhousa family is Build A Village, a community group in Altona formed in 2001 to assist MCC with replacing homes destroyed by the earthquakes in El Salvador.
The organization expanded its work in 2005 to provide settlement support for newcomers to Canada and over the years has supported 15 families—six of these were sponsored through MCC, said Ray Loewen, chair of Build a Village’s nine-member coordinating committee.
Eight families have moved to larger cities but seven refugee families supported by Build A Village currently live in Altona.
“When I look around to see the diversity we have now, it is incredibly rewarding,” said Loewen. “These new families add so much to our community and bless us in so many ways.”
Ebatsam Elsheikh and Abuobeida Elgald, a refugee family from Sudan sponsored through MCC, can speak Arabic and were part of the group from Altona that met the Abukhousa family at the airport.
“I’m so happy for this family,” said Elsheikh. “They will be safe—they will be in a community where people are very helpful and peaceful.”
The arrival of this new family, she said, reminds her of the anxiety she felt when she and her husband and three children, now age 11, 13 and 15, settled in Altona three years ago.
She appreciates the practical assistance her family has received over the years but the strong community support at an event in January 2010 to celebrate the town’s cultural diversity strengthened the family’s sense of belonging.
“I made falafels,” she said, explaining the event had featured ethnic food and cultural displays and entertainment from 28 countries. The attendance of more than 500 people surpassed all expectations. “All the food was gone,” she added.
The welcoming group at the Winnipeg airport also included a Winnipeg family, Assil Al Hassani, Fuad Abdulla and their son, Hachim Abdulla – a family from the Al Hol refugee camp sponsored by the Fort Garry Mennonite Fellowship through MCC.
Al Hassani and Abdulla and their four children arrived in Winnipeg in October 2009. Al Hassani said the best part about living in Canada is the absence of war. “I can sleep because I know when I wake up tomorrow, my children will be safe.”
Abueraiban said everyone in her extended family has now left Iraq. She now has family living in Jordan, Palestine and Toronto.