MANITOULIN—It has been just over a year since Manitoulin welcomed four Eritrean refugee families. While some of the families are still acclimatizing to life on Manitoulin and in Canada, others have moved on to pursue new ventures in a country they now call home.
“It was the one-year anniversary in February for the Little Current family; mom Jimati and her children, 18-year-old Romme, young adult Abdi, Manitoulin Secondary School students Saha and Hallom and Little Current Public School students Hallima and Matuda,” said Little Current Refugee Committee Family Coordinator Linda Erskine. “Abdi and Jimati are still learning English, taking private lessons at home. Jimati is doing house cleaning a few hours a week, while we are still looking for a full-time job for Abdi. Romme is at Cambrian College in Little Current hoping to start a pre-health program in September, working towards a nursing degree.”
“Hallima and Matuda are doing really well and soaking everything up,” added Ms. Erskine of the two young girls. “They have active social lives, playing with friends and are taking dance lessons. Saha and Hallom are doing well in high school. Saha is doing a co-op placement this semester with an Island carpenter that is going extremely well and Hallom is going to be taking a babysitting course—she has a passion for young children.”
Ms. Erskine also noted that Romme is a strong runner, running daily from Little Current to Sheguiandah and back and will be competing in a race in Sudbury on April 23.
“The family has become well integrated into the community,” said Ms. Erskine. “We made an unwritten two-year commitment to the family—we don’t plan to walk away until they are self sufficient.”
The other Little Current family moved to Ottawa in February to be closer to family and for the mom, Fathiya, to pursue further education.
Fathiya and her nine-year-old son Mohammed and eight-year-old daughter Mansura enjoyed their time on Manitoulin, said Sarah Quackenbush, a volunteer with the Manitoulin Refugee Committee who worked close with the family.
“It was a hard decision for Fathiya to leave Manitoulin, but she moved to Ottawa to be closer to her sister and for her education. She has a university degree in sociology, but she is now taking further English classes and plans to work towards becoming a language translator or Early Childhood Educator.”
“We speak with them daily and really miss them, but Fathiya and the children are doing well,” said Ms. Quackenbush. “It’s bittersweet, we miss them terribly, but we are proud of her that she is following her dream.”
The family living in Gore Bay, a grandmother and her grandson, left for Kitchener last fall, but Ms. Erskine said they are still in touch with members of the Manitoulin committee and are doing “extremely well.”
In Mindemoya, the sponsors are still awaiting their family’s arrival—parents and their six children who range in age from a baby to 13-years-old.
“The family gave birth just at the time they were supposed to be leaving for Canada,” said Ms. Quackenbush. “Now, one year later, we have just found out that she (the baby) has been cleared for medical and security screens, the family is now anxiously awarding to receive her visa. Unfortunately, we have been told that could be up to another year and a half.”
The Beyene family who settled in Manitowaning, including mother Haile, father Letekidan, their 21-year-old daughter Rahwa, 19-year-old son Sttagos, 17-year-old son Bahalibi, 12-year-old Essay and nine-year-old grandson Fanuel, were to leave Manitoulin last year to move to Kitchener in hopes of more job opportunities, but their housing fell through.
“When their housing fell through, the Mindemoya volunteers came forward and offered the house that they had vacant for the delayed family,” said Ms. Quackenbush. “They also had an English as a second language (ESL) team ready to go, which is a really important part of the sponsorship.”
Reflecting on the last year, Ms. Quackenbush said, “In general, the 19 newcomers on Manitoulin have blended into their communities well and have been well received.” “Anyone really opposed to the newcomers isn’t saying much any more,” she added. “I think most people’s concerns have been calmed, having assessed the general mood in the community. Many have now met the newcomers, or their child is a classmate to one of the newcomer children, or they know somebody volunteering with the families.”
Over the winter she noted that the group celebrated five new Canadian drivers.
“Many of the newcomers have been working very hard to study for their G1 drivers test, which they had to take in English,” Ms. Quackenbush explained. “So far five newcomers have taken and passed their test. Volunteers are now busy taking these new drivers out in parking lots and on the roads for lessons. This is one area where all the newcomers agree, ‘Manitoulin is a good place to learn to drive’.”
“Families have been separated from their loved ones,” she said. “One family has a son with two children and a daughter with two young children left back in refugee camps. Another family has a teenage daughter who was left behind. Reuniting these families has become one of our priorities and we are following through on Immigration Canada’s guidelines to get the family members here, although the process is painfully slow.”
Ms. Quackenbush said another major concern for the newcomers is how to pay off their financial debt to the Canadian government.
“Each person in the family needs to pay off the loan given by the government for their medical tests prior to entering Canada and their airfare,” she explained. “This amounts to approximately $2,000 or more per person. For families of seven, their bill for $14,000 plus seems insurmountable. Through the help of the Mindemoya Missionary Church, each of the 19 newcomers have been given $500 to get started on the repayment of their loan. The Manitoulin Refugee Committee is hoping more churches, businesses and individuals will be interested in donating toward helping these families pay off these tremendous government loans.”
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