Every month, we ask different participants of our Leadership Winnipeg class to blog about their experience.
Each year, Winnipeg welcomes thousands of newcomers. They may come as international students, young families looking for a better life for their children, or as refugees forced to flee their homes. Each person has unique needs and stories, but they are all united in their desire to feel at home again.
Recently, the 2018 Leadership Winnipeg class had the opportunity to visit three agencies that support recent refugees and immigrants making Winnipeg a place to call home.
Our first visit was to the Immigrant Centre at 100 Adelaide Street. Stepping into the building, it felt like I was entering a trendy tech start-up, with beautiful hardwood floors and exposed beams and offices without doors. At 8:45 am, the front lobby was already busy with clients, chatting in several languages while sitting on the over-sized plush benches that lined the waiting area.
Jorge Fernandez, Executive Director of the Immigrant Centre, and an alumnus of Leadership Winnipeg, met with our class and shared the organization’s vision and mission. The Immigrant Centre serves all newcomers that arrive in Winnipeg, assessing their needs and creating a personalized plan to help with the settlement process. Clients receive information and services to assist with housing, banking, employment, language and nutrition. In some cases, clients access services while they are still in their country of origin through the online Pre-Arrival Centre.
Jorge is an immigrant himself and was a client of the Immigrant Centre when he arrived in Winnipeg in the late 1980s. Today, Jorge is what one of my classmates described as, “the happiest CEO in history,” and the pride and optimism he demonstrates for the Immigrant Centre was contagious. It’s clear Jorge and his growing team of staff and volunteers work tirelessly to ensure they meet the needs of newcomers.
We left the Immigrant Centre and walked a few blocks down Bannatyne to the Welcome Place, which is run by the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council (MIIC). The MIIC was founded in 1948, when Europe’s post-war instability and uncertainty led to thousands of displaced people and immigrants. Today, the Welcome Place serves the needs of refugees arriving in Winnipeg, including government-assisted refugees, privately sponsored refugees, and refugee claimants. In recent years, the Welcome Place has been dealing with an increase in refugee claimants crossing the border from the United States.
Felicien Rubayita, Co-Manager of Settlement Services, spoke to us about the unique challenges refugees face and the ways the Welcome Place assists once they are in Winnipeg. Compared to someone who chooses to immigrate to another country, a refugee is fleeing their country of origin because they have a well-founded fear of persecution. They rarely have time to plan, learn the language of their new country, or take many belongings.
Felicien’s story reflects this desperate flight. A former medical doctor, he fled his home country of Rwanda in 2008 in the middle of the night. When he finally arrived in Canada, he discovered he was missing one document to prove his qualifications and was forced to start his education in Canada at a Grade 12 level.
When a refugee comes to Winnipeg, they are met at the airport (or the border in the case of many refugee claimants) by MIIC staff and taken to the Welcome Place. There, their immediate needs are looked after and they are given clean, safe accommodations for up to two weeks. The staff works with their clients to process paperwork, locate housing, and teach them valuable skills for living in Winnipeg, such as how to take a bus or adjust to the climate.
Winnipeg has seen a drastic increase in the number of refugees coming to the city. As we toured the site, we could see the strain this has put on Welcome Place’s already busy building. Extra workstations were set up in hallways and the residences were full. The bedrooms were clean and functional, but basic. The Welcome Place provides each family with a care package containing kitchen items and toiletries, which is theirs to take when they move to their next home. It’s a small but meaningful gesture that helps their clients rebuild their lives in Canada.
We left the Welcome Place and walked over to Edmonton Street. In a nondescript building tucked behind the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, is Holy Names House of Peace. Founded in 2004 by Sister Lesley Sacouman, House of Peace provides a safe, peaceful home for 18 refugee and immigrant women (“Neighbours”) for up to two years. As we removed our shoes and crossed over the threshold, a quiet calm surrounded our group.
Sister Lesley gave us a tour, stopping to point out the beautiful furnishings and decorations that surrounded us – each item thoughtfully donated by community members or former Neighbours. As Sister Lesley explained, “I don’t think any of us heal in chaos… and so I wanted for them, a home that would be beautiful.”
In addition to providing a safe home for the Neighbours, Holy Names House of Peace serves the community of Winnipeg with a variety of programs, workshops and support groups. The St. Francis chapel is open to anyone looking for quiet and warmth.
Canada has a long history of immigration and providing refuge to newcomers in need. The Immigrant Centre, Welcome Place, and Holy Names House of Peace continue that tradition and each provide crucial services to Winnipeg’s newcomers. While they have different missions and approaches, each organization believes in supporting newcomers so they can heal, thrive, contribute and, ultimately, feel at home in Winnipeg.
Leadership Winnipeg is grateful for the support of our Vision Partners