The 12 months of the Refugee – Winnipeg Free Press

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This article was published 14/01/2016 (2565 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Canada flung open its doors to Syrian refugees in 2015 with many arriving in Manitoba late in the year. However, they made up just a fraction of the estimated 1,500 refugees who arrived throughout last year from around the world.

Twelve months of the year, from January to December, families and individuals who fled war and persecution — from Bhutan to Somalia to Syria — took refuge in Winnipeg last year. Here’s a look at some of them who arrived in 2015 — the Year of the Refugee.



Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press
Simon Hagos, an Eritrean refugee who arrived in January 2015.

Simon Hagos, 36

When he arrived: Jan. 17.

From: Eritrea. Six years ago, he fled the African country that’s been compared to North Korea for its human rights abuses. He initially made it to Israel where, as a temporary resident, he found work making pizzas in Tel Aviv. He knew he had no chance of ever bringing his two children and his wife, who was pregnant with his third child, to Israel.

Where he’s at in his resettlement: Hagos works as an office cleaner at night, attends English-language classes three hours a day, five days a week, and shares an apartment with two other refugees who are also sending money to loved ones back home. Hagos was able to apply to bring his wife, Okuba, and their three children to Canada through the federal “one-year window,” and they’re expected to arrive this year.

Biggest shock: After fleeing Eritrea for political reasons to Israel, where he wasn’t welcome to settle with his family, the most startling thing for Hagos coming to Canada has been an end to the anxiousness about the future that he’s had for years. “I feel OK for the first time.”

First impressions of Winnipeg: It will be a good place for him and his family, he said. “I can learn. I can work. There are laws and democracy. It is large and there is enough room for everyone.”



Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press
Musu Kayfay and her family ( two kids, a sister and sister-in-law) who arrived in March from Sierra Leone.

Musu Kayfay, 36
Mohamed Sesay, 13
Fatumata Kayfay, 6

When they arrived: Feb. 3.

From: Sierra Leone. In 1998, Kayfay fled fighting in Freetown, Sierra Leone, for a refugee camp in Guinea.

Where they’re at in their resettlement: they live at IRCOM’s (Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba) downtown transitional housing. The children are in school and Kayfay attends English-language classes four hours a day, five days a week. She hopes to get her certificate to work as a health-care aide. Both children say they want to be doctors when they grow up.

Biggest shock: The winter, she said. “Nobody told me it would be this cold.”

First impressions of Winnipeg: “The cold hit me and I said ‘Whoa! We’re in a new place now,’ ” she said. “I’m so happy.”



Reem Younes and her husband Brian Darweesh came to Canada from Syria in March 2015.

Reem Younes, 30
Brian Darweesh, 33

When they arrived: March 19.

From: Syria. They both lived in the Syrian port city of Latakia, close to the border with Turkey and met at university. Darweesh, a political editor, fled to Beirut, Lebanon, where his dad lives, after he was critical on social media of the Assad regime and was called up to join the Syrian Army. His then-girlfriend Younes, a teacher, joined him three months later after fighting drew closer to Latakia. They married in a civil ceremony in Beirut before being sponsored to come to Canada.

Where they’re at in their resettlement: They have an apartment in East Kildonan that was completely furnished by their sponsors, Douglas Mennonite Church. Brian, who used to go by Mohammad, was baptized Mennonite at the church in December. He and Younes, an agnostic, go to church every Sunday. She is working as a child-care assistant before and after school. She is taking English lessons twice a week and would like to work in refugee resettlement. He’s working full-time for a company that does renovation and restoration work. They hope to one day own a house and start a family.

Biggest shock: The diversity of Winnipeg. “There are lots of immigrants,” Younes said.

First impressions of Winnipeg: The cold temperature and warm people. They said the friendliness of the people enveloped them at the airport before the freezing temperatures hit them outside. Darweesh recalled it being -17 C the day they arrived.



Mohamed Bangura and his wife Isata Kamara originally from Sierra Leone.

Mohamed Bangura, 43
Isata Kamara, 31
Matiama, 9, Alhaji, 5, and Isatou, 3

When they arrived: April 30.

From: Sierra Leone. Kamara was 15 in 1999 when they fled fighting in Freetown but not before her leg was hacked off with a sword. They crossed into Guinea and then made their way to a refugee camp in Gambia, where they lived for several years.

Where they’re at in their resettlement: The family of five lives in IRCOM’s transitional housing downtown. The children attend school and daycare nearby while the parents attend English-language classes Monday to Friday — she in the mornings and he in the afternoon and evenings. He was a carpenter in Africa and loves the work but, for now, “any job is a good job for me.” Kamara, who got a new prosthetic leg after they arrived and walks to language classes several blocks away five days a week, says she wants to work as a health-care aide.

Biggest shock: “The snow,” said Bangura. There wasn’t any left when they arrived in April but they were up at 2 a.m. watching in wonderment when they witnessed it falling for the first time.

First impressions of Winnipeg: “Peace,” Bangura said. “It’s good,” said Kamara. “The people are friendly.”



Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press
Tek and his wife Sabitri Bhandari with their daughter Neya, The family came from Bhutan. Two cousins who came separately, Shreya (left) and Sahana (6) in the background.

Tek Bhandari, 46
Sabitri Bhandari, 36
Suresh, 18, and Pujan, 16, and Neya, 8

When they arrived: May 1.

From: Bhutan. Tek and Sabitri were kids when they were displaced from Bhutan to a refugee camp in neighbouring Nepal. Bhutanese refugees of ethnic Nepalese descent have been living in seven camps in eastern Nepal since the early 1990s when Bhutan wanted to impose a single national culture and language and to restrict citizenship. Eventually, more than 100,000 ethnic Nepalese from Bhutan were moved to Nepal between 1988 and 1993. Canada has resettled more than 6,300 Bhutanese.

Where they’re at in their resettlement: The family lives in an IRCOM apartment. The boys attend Gordon Bell High School and Neya is in Grade 3. The parents attend English-language classes five days a week.

Biggest shock: “Everything was so different,” Bhandari said through an interpreter.

First impressions: “It was like going from the light to the darkness,” Bhandari said, saying he felt totally lost and out of place. “I was crying and wanted to know if I could go back,” Sabitri said through the interpreter. “Now it’s good,” she said, “but I worry about the snow and the cold.”



Jason Halstead / Winnipeg Free Press
From left: Abiot Gorfu, sons Daniel (7) and Samuel (12) and husband Wassie came to Canada in June as refugees after fleeing Ethiopia.

Wassie Gorfu, 45
Abiot Gorfu, 37
Samuel, 12, and Daniel, 6

When they arrived: June 29.

From: Ethiopia. They both fled Ethiopia many years ago — Wassie left during the war when Eritrea fought for its independence 24 years ago. Abiot left in the aftermath. They both ended up in Khartoum, Sudan, where they wed, had their sons and eked out a living as undocumented workers — she as a cook and he as a security guard. They lived in a one-room shelter so they could afford to send their sons to a decent school.

Where they’re at in their resettlement: Wassie says he’s planning to be a truck driver but is working as a security guard for now. Both he and Abiot are taking English-language classes. She wants to work as a health-care aide, she said through an interpreter. Their sons have settled into their schools. Samuel wants to be a mechanical engineer and Daniel wants to be a police officer. They live in an apartment in St. James where he’s a caretaker and they get support from friends at their Ethiopian Orthodox church and the Hospitality House Refugee Ministry.

Biggest shock: “The snow,” said son Daniel, who was amazed by it at first. “It’s so cold — how could we play in it?” His dad was surprised to learn his kids’ schooling is free.

First impressions: “It’s much cleaner,” said Abiot, who appreciates Winnipeg’s wide-open spaces. “It’s a good place to live.”



Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press
Priscile Cishayo, 46, and her daughter Genie (Burgundy tank), 20, son Bennit, 18, and daughter Winnie (all black clothes), 17.

Priscile Cishayo, 46
Genie, 20, Bennit, 18 and Winnie, 17

When they arrived: July 8.

From: Burundi. Cishayo left during the war in Burundi 17 years ago, fleeing to the Democratic Republic of Congo. That’s where she and her husband’s three children were born. When fighting broke out in Congo, the family became separated. Cishayo and the kids fled to South Africa and, to this day, she doesn’t know where her husband is or if he is alive. As a single mom, she took care of her three kids working as a housekeeper.

Where they’re at in their resettlement: The four of them live in a Charleswood duplex with their sponsor, Priscile’s good friend Claudine from Burundi along with Claudine’s husband and two children. Bennit and Winnie are in high school and Genie is studying business administration at the University of Winnipeg.

Biggest shock: For Cishayo, it’s the way refugees are treated in Canada. In South Africa, xenophobia is rampant and foreigners such as her and her children were harassed, she said. Bennit said he at first wasn’t sure what to make of Manitobans’ friendliness. “Sometimes it’s a bit a scary,” he laughed.

First impressions: “It’s pretty,” said Genie, who was awed by all the trees and greenery she saw when they first arrived in July.



Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press
Zewdi Habtemichael with three of her kids, left to right: Suzan (11), Alexander (13) and Youel (6). She and her 8 children came to Canada as refugees in the past year.

Zewdi Habtemichael, 46
Beylul, 16, Alexander, 13, Suzan, 11 and Youel, 6.
Four adult children who came with them but live elsewhere.

When they arrived: Aug. 31.

From: Eritrea. Habtemichael, a widow, fled Eritrea for the sake of her children. They went to Sudan where they were privately sponsored to come to Canada.

Where they’re at in their resettlement: The family lives in IRCOM’s transitional housing apartment block downtown, and the children are in school. Through an interpreter, Zewdi said she’s planning to take English-language classes, find a job and get a bigger place. She said she’s grateful to an elderly man who was moving out of his home and donated all his furniture to the family.

Biggest shock: “The buildings,” Suzan said without the help of an interpreter. She was surprised by Winnipeg’s architecture once they landed in the city. “(The buildings are) so different.”

First impressions: “I’m happy,” Habtemichael said, recalling her relief at making it to Winnipeg. “My children came to an advanced country where they can learn.”



John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press
Sagal Abdi Ali, a refugee from Somalia, with her two sons Ryaaz, 2, and Ridwan, one month, in her cousin’s home. Sagal was sponsored by her cousin and came to Canada is September.

Sagal Abdi Ali, 25
Ryaaz Ali, 2
Baby Ridwan, who was in utero when they arrived and was born in December

When they arrived: Sept. 15.

From: Somalia. Ali left Mogadishu in 2010 because it was not safe and took refuge in Capetown, South Africa. She worked as a baker but it still wasn’t a safe, permanent place to call home. She was sponsored by her cousin in Winnipeg to come to Canada.

Where they’re at in their resettlement: Ali and her two young children are living in an apartment with her cousin and cousin’s husband in the West End. She speaks English and is focusing on caring for Riyaaz and Ridwan but wants to go back to school when they’re a bit older and study to become a nurse.

Biggest shock: Snow. “It’s too cold, and I don’t like the cold,” said Ali.

First impressions of Winnipeg: “People are very friendly. I can walk anywhere. It’s a safe place.”



Family portrait of Genet Eshete, Kidus Urga, 17, Yacob Urga, and Yosef Urga, 12, all refugees from Ethiopia.

Genet Eshete, 34
Kidus, 17, and Yosef, 12
Joined her husband Yacob Urga, who arrived in Winnipeg in September 2012

When they arrived: Oct. 6.

From: Ethiopia. She and Yacob had a shop in a town close to the country’s capital of Addis Ababa until her husband was forced to flee for political reasons. Genet and the children waited three years and one month to join Yacob in Winnipeg.

Where they’re at in their resettlement: He now works as a delivery driver. Genet is training with a cleaning company and learning English. Their sons are both in school full-time near their immaculate two-bedroom basement apartment in the North End. Both sons said, in English, they want to be health-care professionals.

Biggest shock: “The city is so big,” said Kidus, who was taken aback by Winnipeg’s spaciousness. For his mom, it was the stuff on the ground. “The snow,” Genet said through Kidus. It was something she expected in Winnipeg but seeing it for the first time still came as a shock, she said.

First impressions of Winnipeg: “It’s a good city,” said Genet. “There is no problem.”



Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press
Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar where they were persecuted by Buddhists and had no rights, now are settled in Winnipeg. From left: Mohammed Tayab, Omar Sarduk (dad of baby), Khin Khin Tay (mom), Thoudada Nay, 3 months and Hafzur Rahaman.

Omar Sarduk, 39
Khin Khin Tay, 28
Infant daughter Thoudada Nay

When they arrived: Nov. 24.

From: Myanmar, after he spent six years in a refugee camp in Cambodia. She joined him there a year ago.

Where they’re at in their resettlement: They’ve started the Entry program — a four-week introduction for newcomers to Canada that provides them with information about their new home, its rules and how it works. At the end of it, their English-language skills will be assessed and they’ll be directed to language classes. Khin Khin can read English and is an experienced tailor who hopes to work from home on a donated sewing machine. Sarduk, who worked for an auto-parts dealer, hopes to improve his English and get back into the auto-parts business.

Biggest shock: Pedestrian-vehicle etiquette. They were trying to cross Main Street on foot and traffic stopped for them.

First impressions of Winnipeg: After dreaming of coming to Canada, stepping out of the airport confirmed they had actually arrived. “I was very happy to see the snow,” Sarduk said through an interpreter.



Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press
Khaled Alhmeidat with Samer, Mohammad, Rania, little brothers Moaiad, Motasem, and Motaz.

Khaled Alhmeidat
Eqbal Alhmeidat
Samer, Mohammad, Rania, Moaiad, Motasem and Motaz (ages 16 to 2)

When they arrived: Dec. 28.

From: Damascus, Syria. They fled their home in the Syrian capital on Feb. 2, 2013. “It was overwhelming,” Alhmeidat said through an interpreter. “For three days we were under heavy fire. We were scared to go out and get food.” The grocer’s family fled to Daraa near the border with Jordan but didn’t stay long. “There was heavy fighting there, and we can’t stay.” They crossed into Jordan to the safety of a refugee camp. “It was horrible.” The wind kept whipping their tent apart. The dust made it difficult for baby Motaz to breathe. They jumped at the chance to come to Canada.

Where they’re at in their resettlement: The week they arrived, they were staying in an apartment downtown, getting over their jet lag and the children were looking forward to starting school.

Biggest shock: The brightness of snow, Alhmeidat said. “We’ve been living in darkness for four years, and when the kids saw the snow, they started playing in it. It was like coming out from the darkness to a bright place.”

First impressions of Winnipeg: “I wasn’t sure I was in Canada,” Alhmeidat said. “It was a dream come true.”

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Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

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