LITTLE CURRENT – It has been three years since the first family of Eritrean refugees, the family of Jamati Agar Alibay, including sons Abdi, Saha and Romme and daughters Hallom, Hallima and Matuda, arrived on Manitoulin’s shores after spending over a decade as refugees in a camp in Ethiopia. A fourth daughter, Nafa, and her infant child were unable to accompany the family to Canada due to Nafa’s pregnancy, but last year she was finally able to join the family in their new home in Ottawa.
This past weekend, the three young men of Ms. Agar Alibay’s family passed through Manitoulin on their way back to Ottawa. Saha and Romme set out for Sault Ste. Marie a few days ago to collect their older brother Abdi who was moving to Ottawa to be with the family.
The trio stopped by to chat with The Expositor and provide a bit of an update on how the family is doing.
“We have not forgotten the people of Manitoulin,” said Romme, expressing the family’s regret at not being able to visit with the many people who made them welcome to the Island in 2015. “We hoped to be able to come to Manitoulin in the summer, but the COVID-19 made it that we could not come,” he said. “We are sorry we could not come to see all of you.”
The family has settled into their new home in Nepean, just outside Ottawa, with sister Nafa and her baby Heaven finally having been able to join the family in their new country.
Manitoulin Refuge committee member Linda Erskine recalled her first meeting with the family.
“This little girl in a sundress and flip-flops came running across the tarmac calling out ‘Linda! Linda!’,” she laughed. “The family had been travelling for three days, flying from country to country on their way here. The only thing they knew was that they were coming to Canada and that a lady named ‘Linda’ would take care of them.” Luckily there was a warm bus donated by A.J. Bus Lines waiting to whisk them away to their new Island home manned by a cadre of Island volunteers from the committee.
The Manitoulin Refuge Committee was hosted by the Mindemoya Missionary Church and many of its members came from that community, but members of a host of other Island faith communities also lent a hand in providing a safe haven for the refugee families that eventually came to the Island. Those families made their first landing in communities across Manitoulin, with Gore Bay, Central Manitoulin and Assiginack also serving as host communities.
Although the nation was gripped by the crisis of the Syrian conflict and the thousands of refugees that were fleeing the violence that had erupted in that country, the Refuge Committee cast their eyes to the forgotten ones—those refugees that had been languishing in camps for more than a decade in Ethiopia.
“We decided as a committee early on that we wanted to help those who were not at the top of the list, the easiest groups to help, but rather to seek out those whose situation was outside of the current media focus,” said Ms. Erskine. “There were lots of people queuing up to help with the Syrians.”
That focus presented its own problems, since the government assistance on offer was aimed at that one particular group and the Eritrean families were faced with paying down a massive airlift bill that the Syrian groups were exempted from.
The family’s new home in Nepean is large enough to accommodate all of the family members.
Matriarch Jamati misses the Island terribly, said Romme. “She is taking English as a second language (ESL) courses online and everyone is making sure to speak English to her.” Ms. Agar Alibay and her eldest son Abdi struggled the most with learning the new language, despite the efforts of several volunteer ESL teachers.
“My mother really misses Manitoulin Island and the people here,” said Romme. Although there is a larger Eritrean diaspora in the Ottawa region, the friends that she made here on the Island hold a special place in her heart.
Despite the language barrier, Abdi secured work on Manitoulin at the fish plant in Little Current where he soon found himself a valued employee. The last in the family to leave Manitoulin, Abdi, has been working at a recycling plant in Sault Ste. Marie for the past two years.
Next eldest son, Saha, is now married and working in Ottawa, but his wife remains overseas with their one-year-old daughter, COVID-19 having interrupted plans for them to come to Canada. “It is very hard,” said Saha of the separation from his wife. A challenging situation for the newlyweds, but they are soldiering on.
It was interesting to note the first question asked by Saha when he arrived in Little Current and was being interviewed by The Expositor was “is there work?” The second question was “is there football (soccer)?” Both have been found in abundance and the young men in the family have found a niche (before COVID) in local Ottawa region soccer teams.
Romme is in college studying to be a personal support worker, with his goal set on eventually becoming a nurse—his longtime goal. He still runs regularly, many may remember his outstanding debut on the course at competitions in Sudbury, but races are now far in between, due to the advent of the pandemic.
Eldest daughter Hallom has completed secondary school and is enrolled in university, looking forward to a career in the helping fields. The other daughters are still in school, but growing up fast. The youngest, Matuda, may actually now be the tallest member of the family, shared Romme.
The girls stay in touch with many of the friends they made while attending school on Manitoulin.
The trio of young men have not yet received their vaccinations and each studiously remained masked throughout the interview. “It is a very difficult time for everyone,” admitted Romme. “But we want everyone to be safe.”
The Island is their stopover on the return journey back to Napean and the young men were isolating at a cottage in Sheguiandah before taking on the last leg of the trip home with Abdi.
“We really hope to be able to come back and really visit our friends here on Manitoulin,” said Romme.”
In the meantime, the family is safe and very happy and remembers their Manitoulin friends fondly.
The Expositor hopes to reach out to the other families hosted by the Manitoulin Refuge Committee in the coming weeks.