by Francesca Billington
“I love Martha Stewart so I buy Martha Stewart comforters.” Rita Chahal flips over the plastic package–a blue and green polka dotted comforter inside–to check the label. “Yes! This is Martha Stewart.” Chahal is the Executive Director of the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council in Winnipeg. We’re standing next to bunk beds in a two-bedroom apartment on third floor of Welcome Place, a temporary home for government sponsored refugees before they find permanent housing in the city. In the kitchen, a neat stack of new dishware from Ikea and a package of matching pots and pans are stacked on the counter. These apartments are for government-sponsored refugees but lately asylum seekers, refugees who are applying for a claim, have been housed here too, though they are not funded by the Canadian government. The MIIC fundraises its own money to assist them.
Downstairs on the second floor, two law students from the University of Manitoba sit in office chairs beside asylum claimants. Among them are Abraham Gebreyohannes and Abraham Bebrezhabiher, friends who met in a Florida detention center earlier this year. Gebreyohannes came to Canada in August as an asylum claimant and was granted refugee status by the government. He speaks English and now lives in Winnipeg. He came back to Welcome Place to help Bebrezhabiher, who crossed the U.S./ Canada border a few days ago. Bebrezhabiher is quiet and looks down often. He can’t speak very much English, so his friend translates for me; that’s why Gebreyohannes is here today—to translate his friend’s story into English for his refugee claim.
Bebrezhabiher left Eretria in 2008 and spent years in the U.S, stuck in detention centers in Florida, Georgia, and New Mexico, even after receiving news that his claim had been rejected. He tried starving himself once in Georgia for seven days, hoping he would be let free. But he was sent back to the detention center in Florida instead. Bebrezhabiher was released and made the trip to Emerson in October, but unlike his friend, Bebrezhabiher didn’t get back any of the paperwork he filled out in the U.S.—including his narrative, written in English. His friend holds up a journal with three pages filled with neat Tigrinya written in black ink. Gebreyohannes sits in between Bebrezhabiher and Segen Andemariam, a law student who is typing up the story on a Word document. She’s been working at Welcome Place for a few weeks and says most of her clients so far have come in with something written down—often the claims that were rejected in the U.S. In this case, she is translating a story into English, adding extra details from Bebrezhabiher’s experiences living in detention centers across the United States. They keep working, back and forth, to add the dates and events and emotions that make up Bebrezhabiher’s life to a document that could determine whether he can one day live like his friend.