Unsettled: The Salvation Army & Canada’s refugee claimants

by Prairie Division
Categories: Prairie News

Mohamed Sharif and Yong Qi ‘Richard’ Zhang have been staying at The Salvation Army’s Booth Centre since February. With nowhere else to go to seek food and shelter from the cold, the men are two of more than 100 who have turned to The Salvation Army after fleeing the United States and crossing the border illegally, into Emerson, Manitoba.

Some fear deportation under the new Trump presidency, some have had their request to renew their work permit refused, and others, like Sharif, are simply running before either of those things can happen.

“When you’re seeking safety and you come to a new country to find people who have been there for 10 years before you are fleeing, it doesn’t really make you feel secure about your future,” says Sharif, 33, a native of Somalia who arrived in America from Kenya, Africa in November 2016. “At the end of the day, they hadn’t had their day in court, which is the most important thing when you’re seeking asylum, is to actually go to court and see what your status will be.”

Upon their arrival in America, many immigrants are given the opportunity to apply for a year-long work permit, while they await a court hearing that will determine if they are sent back to their home country, or allowed to live in the United States. But Sharif says he met people in America who had been waiting six years for their hearing, living on a temporary work permit that, lately, seemed far less likely to be approved.

“I met a lot of people who were there for six to 10 years, paying taxes and all that, they have good credit, and as soon as their work permit gets cancelled, everything goes out the window; you can’t pay your rent anymore, you can’t make your car payments. So they’ve decided, ‘I’ve already been in this country for far too long without getting my day in court,’ and no one wants to get sent back to Somalia.”

Sharif and his family fled their home country of Somalia in 1991, eventually settling in Nairobi, Kenya, where he fell in love and wed a woman outside of his tribe, to the displeasure of his community. After being tortured and shot on many separate occasions, the final straw came when his older brother was killed by a group who mistook him for Sharif, forcing him to make the difficult decision to leave his wife and two children and flee to America.

Richard Zhang first came to America from China when he was 15 years old, landing in Austin, Texas as part of an exchange program. Now 21 and with similar stories of expiring work permits not being approved for renewal, he set his sights on Canada and arrived in Winnipeg on February 25.

“I’d been in the States for five and half years, so while I don’t want to leave that place, it was always temporary,” Zhang says, referring to not obtaining a court hearing and never feeling settled. “If I want to have a life settled, my own house, my own pets, all of those things, I have to think, what happens if I get kicked out? It’s constantly reminding you; you don’t belong to here, you don’t belong to here.  It was five and half years; it’s very painful.”

Sharif made the border crossing with a larger group under the cover of darkness, walking for roughly seven hours in the cold, as the leader of the group became lost several times along the way.

“There was a place where we had to get off the road and walk through someone’s farm,” Sharif says, recalling sinking into the snow up to his chest shortly after leaving the security of the road. “It became very challenging mentally; asking yourself is it really worth it.”

At one point in the journey, Sharif tossed aside his backpack, full of his personal belongings and the only thing he had brought with him, in order to carry an older woman’s son who was struggling.

“There is a time that you think to yourself if you’re really going to make it, or if you came here just to die on the way.”

He arrived in Emerson after most of the others from his group, was picked up by the RCMP shortly after and taken to the border crossing.

“I had never been to Canada. But knowing that Canada and America are both North America, I figured it’s the same thing,” Sharif says, saying his impression of many of the American people he met was that they could be quite rude and arrogant. “But once you come here, even your RCMP are very different; they didn’t put me in handcuffs; they offered me food.”

The Canadian people have been very friendly, from the police to how we were received here by The Salvation Army.”

Zhang crossed the border into Emerson in the afternoon, using his cell phone to help him navigate. He too was eventually spotted in Canada, arrested, and taken to the Canadian border crossing.

“Once I arrived at the border and we started talking, they were very friendly over there,” Zhang says. “In general I didn’t feel that they dislike immigrants; they try to help you out, to get the paperwork filled out. The officer I had was very patient, extremely polite; they gave me a blanket and offered me some spaghetti. You almost feel like you’re talking to a friend.”

Currently, Welcome Place – a refugee settlement agency operated by the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council Inc. – offers a van for pickup at the Canadian border, with many of the families and individuals ultimately being brought to the Booth Centre for temporary housing, while they work to complete the process of applying for refugee status within Canada.

“The staff here was very welcoming. I think I was probably one of the first people here. I was received very well here,” says Sharif, again expressing surprise at how welcome he’s felt since arriving in Canada. “The Canadian people shouldn’t be afraid of us. You will always find a couple of bad people in every group, but the majority of us are just looking for a better life, whether it’s education, whether it’s work. We want to pay taxes. Because that’s what citizens do; you contribute to the country that you’re living in.

“It’s normal to be scared of something they don’t know, it’s human nature. But we’re all just humans, we all just want to live at the end of the day. If I wasn’t going through what I was going through, I’d never be here. Who would not want to be in their own country, where you speak your own language and you’re comfortable. But because that option was taken away from me forcefully, I have no other options; this is my option.”

And with Folklorama – the largest and longest-running multicultural festival in the world – coming up in August, Zhang, who hopes to have the opportunity to finish his Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Engineering here in Canada, points to the benefits of a diverse society.

“The more different the people are, the more innovation a country can have. I think that is what makes a country great,” he says. “We’re not here to take job opportunities away. When we work, we also consume products.

“I’d just like to have a stable place that I can stay long term where I know nobody is going to kick me out tomorrow. I also don’t want to go back to where I come from. I don’t want to contribute my knowledge, my ideas, my labour, to a country I don’t like, that I don’t agree with what they do.”

Mark Stewart is the shelter services coordinator at The Salvation Army’s Booth Centre, and has witnessed the influx of refugee claimants since it began in February, saying to date more than 100 individuals fleeing from the United States have sought shelter at their facility.

“In my opinion, The Salvation Army has been able to show what Canadians and Manitobans and Christians are supposed to be acting like,” Stewart says. “We’ve had to step up and say we’re going to do what we can, and we want to continue to do that.”

And with spring and warmer temperatures just around the corner, Stewart says it may become even more harrowing for individuals to attempt the crossing. But with the only other option being the possibility of deportation, he says they are prepared for it to continue.

“The war and poverty in some of these countries that they could be sent back to is unlike anything that, as a Canadian, I can even think of. It’s a whole other level of poverty,” Stewart says. “If they can have an opportunity to get beyond that, that’s why they’re here.”

Stewart also acknowledged the negative reaction that some Canadians have had to the work they will continue to do with the refugee claimants, saying he believes a lot of the time it is simply a misunderstanding of the work that they’re doing.

“We’re not helping anybody who we wouldn’t normally help. We provide our services no matter who you are or where you come from. Not only do we have the capacity to continue to help our communities in Winnipeg, but newcomers as well; we were doing this already.

“We have never had to stop our regular services, and we still haven’t.”

To make a donation to The Salvation Army’s refugee services, please visit SalvationArmy.ca/refugees or call 204-975-1033 or 1-800-SAL-ARMY (725-2769).