Searching for Asylum: Winnipeg meals financial institution serving to a whole bunch of hungry refugees

Seeking Asylum is a five-part Global News series focusing on asylum seekers’ journeys from entering the country to the challenges of starting a life in a new country.

WINNIPEG — It started out as a twice a month food pantry for Muslim families in need but has since expanded to help hundreds of new asylum seekers in Manitoba.

Every second Wednesday, the Canadian Muslim Women’s Institute (CMWI) hosts a food bank with the help of Winnipeg Harvest.

RELATED: How ‘very skilled’ asylum seekers are contributing to Manitoba’s economy

At first it was mainly used by clients with religious food restrictions who need halal friendly food. But with an increasing number of newcomers and asylum seekers from all over the world, its program has expanded.

“With the asylum seekers we have a lot of people who have no other organized place to get food,” said executive director Laurel Martin. “We now have not only people wanting halal food but all kinds of food.”

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WATCH: Executive Director Laurel Martin speaks to Global News about the need and growth of the food bank

Click to play video: 'Breaking down the twice a month food bank by CMWI, Winnipeg Harvest'

Breaking down the twice a month food bank by CMWI, Winnipeg Harvest

When the food bank started there was just 30 families registered. However, that number has nearly quadrupled in recent months.

“When I joined in November we were at 60 some odd families,” Martin said. “Right now there is 137 families this week for our food bank.”

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Click to play video: 'Train tracks to gravel roads; follow the trail asylum seekers are taking into Manitoba'

Train tracks to gravel roads; follow the trail asylum seekers are taking into Manitoba

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Exactly what the food bank gets from Winnipeg Harvest changes each week. However, one item they are desperate for more of… canned fish.

“It’s the one thing we always hear from our clients,” Martin said. “If it swims in the sea they can eat it.”

Outside of just two full-time employees, the entire organization is run by volunteers. Many of whom are recent asylum seekers waiting for their work permits to be approved.

“Many of them come here to get work experience,” Martin said. “They know that if they want a job in Canada, they need to show they can work in Canada.”

Ahmed Osaa walked across the Canada-U.S. border on November 26, 2016 and was able to apply for his work permit at the end of December.

RELATED: Canada a ‘dreamland’ for Somalis in Minneapolis

While he waits for that document, he survives off provincial assistance and the food bank at CMWI, where he is also volunteering.

“Here is the best place for me,” Osaa said. “When I came, I was given food and clothes. I was so surprised.”

Much like many other asylum seekers, Osaa said it can be hard to make ends meet and have any money left over to eat.

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“When I pay my rent and pay other utilities I’m not left with anything to buy food,” Osaa said.  “That’s why sometimes I come here. That’s what’s keeping me going.”

It’s a shared story among many refugees who drop by this food bank every second week.

RELATED: Follow the trail asylum seekers are taking into Manitoba from the U.S.

“Anytime you say there’s going to be a harvest you’ll see a line-up… a number of people waiting outside,” Osaa said.

Many who are using the organization not as a hand-out but a hand-up until they are able to work full-time and give back to the community that has helped them start over.

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