Author: alight

Against Hardship, a Garden of Joy

by Matt Chang

Dieudonne Mbarushimana has made a home in Altona, Manitoba for eight years against all odds. Mbarushimana, 43, is a Burundian refugee with a disability: He is paralyzed from the waist down. He fled to Tanzania in 2003 when he had been falsely accused of being an anti-government rebel. One unfortunate day, he fell off a tree and permanently damaged his back.

He remained in a refugee camp hospital for six years. With no one able to treat his condition, Mbarushimana had to spend those years lying on his back. The Winnipeg Free Press reported that when the Tanzanian refugee camp was about to shut down, officials attempted to relocate Mbarushimana to a third country. But it was an uphill battle: His original destination was the Netherlands, but the plans fell through when they learned about his disability. The Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) agreed to bring him to his new home through their refugee sponsorship program.

I met Mbarushimana at a lunch arranged by Ray Loewen, the president of a refugee resettlement nonprofit “Build a Village.” The lunch took place at the Bergthaler Mennonite Church of Altona, and our journalism group as well as the MCC were invited to a delicious lunch catered by a group of Syrian refugees. Mbarushimana was a delightful presence, bursting into hearty laughter whenever he could throughout the conversation. His primary hobby is crocheting. He walked me through a Facebook photo album full of these creations, most petite and colorful dolls. This is also good business for him, he says, – there is a good amount of demand for his dolls.

There is not a Burundian community in Altona, but Mbarushimana is technologically savvy about connecting with his people. He participates in a Facebook group that regularly listens to a Catholic radio network, Radio Maria Burundi, and afterward discusses the content. He also connects digitally – through Facebook, through Skype – with his friends from the Tanzanian refugee camp, who have been resettled all over the world, from Norway and Sweden to every major city in the United States. Plus, there is a Burundian community in Winnipeg, and he goes there now and then for medical checkups.

Still, food is one of the challenges that comes with this lack of a local ethnic community. Mbarushimana enjoys a special kind of eggplant which is a staple back in Burundi, but difficult to obtain in Altona. So, he decided to import the seeds and grow the eggplants himself in his garden. Again with a hearty laughter, he showed me a photo of him caressing a bunch of eggplants and boasted of his lucrative harvest. At the end of the lunch, we friended each other on Facebook and promised to keep in touch. By the time our group had arrived at Feast Café Bistro for dinner, I received a message from him, asking about my plans for the night. He also sent a photo:

Mbarushimana said he did not have a friend who lived in East Asia, the region where I’m from. Now he does.

Finding a Unicorn in the Winter

by Ferdose Idris

“Canada is the unicorn” when it comes to migration said Ben Rempel, the Assistant Deputy Minister of Education and Training at the Office of Immigration and Economic opportunity. This is because Canada is one of the few, if not only, countries where provinces share power with the federal government to set migration numbers. Many provinces feel they do not have the workers and immigrants needed to fill the need within their industries.

In addition there has been a grassroots movement to increase the number of refugees within various communities across Canada. “You have to look at the humanitarian side of it first,” said Greg Janzen, Reeve of Emerson-Franklin municipality. A Reeve is the equivalent of a mayor for a collection of towns. Although increases in asylum-seekers has raised security concerns for border towns in Canada like Emerson, the community, overall, has maintained a positive and supportive role for asylum seekers and newcomers. I found this largely to be the perspective of most Canadians. Nearly all Canadians I have spoken to see immigration as a humanitarian obligation and a benefit to their communities.

One example of this type of grassroots, bottom up approach to the refugee problem is Altona’s “Build A Village” organization. Founded in part by Ray Loewen, a leading figure in Altona’s community, “Build a village,” focuses on refugee relocation. He brought rural resettlement to Altona after reading an article that made the argument that the current qualifications for resettlement could be met within rural communities. Common understanding was that resettlement couldn’t work in rural communities cause you did not have a “critical mass to sponsor families,” however it has been largely successful in these regions. The community started by resettling one family into thousand and five and has since resettled 30 families and over 200 people.

Amy Loewen, a community volunteer with two young boys, aged four and two, has become close friends with many of the refugee families resettled in Altona. It’s just so “surprising to me that there are so many road blocks in other communities when it really has not cost us anything” said Loewen of their resettlement experience. Altona is home to refugees from Syria, Venezuela, Sudan, Palestine, and many other nations. As she spoke with me she reiterated how beneficial and enriching her experience has been getting to know refugees from all walks of life, “we are richer for it.” Most of Altona’s population are themselves first, second, or third generation immigrants to Canada, and they have not forgotten their past.




The Bumpy Road of Resettlement


by Nicholas Wu

Sharing shawarma and falafel with refugees and nonprofit representatives in Altona

Altona is a sleepy little town of 4,123 people in southern Manitoba. Home to the world’s largest replica of a Vincent van Gogh sunflower painting, its residents affectionately call it the “Sunflower Capital of the World.” And now a growing population of refugees calls it home. An estimated one percent and growing of the town’s population are resettled refugees.

Dieudonne Mbarushimana came as a Burundian refugee to Manitoba by way of Tanzania, where he spent six years in a Tanzanian refugee camp. He is paralyzed from the waist down – the result of an accident when he fell from a tree. His refugee camp did not have the medical resources to perform the necessary surgery, so he laid on a hospital bed for six years, from 2003 to 2009. He became such a fixture in the refugee camp’s medical facility that the nurses and other patients would come to his bed and take pictures with him.

Eventually, he was sponsored as a refugee and came to Manitoba to be resettled in Altona. He did not speak English when he first arrived, so the pastor of the local Mennonite church tutored him in English. But now, “There’s no one else to talk to in my language,” he explained.” There were many things that I want to say but can’t. I can only talk to other people in English.” And even then, he was still working to improve his English. To his knowledge, there were no other resettled Burundians in his community.

So instead, he keeps in touch with the other Burundian refugees from the Tanzanian camp over Facebook and Whatsapp. He followed them as they were resettled all throughout the United States and Canada, but he has not been able to meet up with any of them in person since they left the Tanzanian refugee camp. He keeps in touch with his native country and the Kirundi language by listening to Radio Maria, a Catholic radio broadcasting service transmitting in Kirundi. He had even sent money to the Burundian Radio Maria pastor to get a hat and t-shirt to show Burundian pride in Altona.

The conversation over refugee narratives often fluctuates between those of “resilient survivors” and “sympathetic victims.” Mbarushimana is undeniably a resilient survivor. He scrapes together his living by helping set cutlery for residents of an apartment complex, and by selling ponchos and cartoon character dolls that he knitted. He comes to the Bergthaler church several times a week to get food from the church’s food bank. But in spite of these difficulties, he is still glad that he came to Canada.


Small town, big welcome

by Tobias Stoner


Pedro Lopez’s face lights up when he sees Walter Heibert. He immediately jumps out of his chair for an enthusiastic hug, and Mr. Heibert seems no less excited to see him. “I cannot pass without saying hello,” he explains. For his part, Mr. Lopez declares, “I love him,” growing emotional as he explains their relationship.

Five years ago, Mr. Lopez left his home in Venezuela. He came to this town of 4500 in the flat, open expanse of Manitoba’s plains. Since his arrival, he has built deep relationships in this town, and has helped sponsor 16 family members who have also moved to Canada.

In Venezuela, says Mr. Lopez, “life is politics.” Until 2007, he worked for an international oil company until the government took over all oil production – an “appropriation of property, not a nationalization,” he says, because “the government did not pay.” After a dispute over back pay – the government told him to ask his company for wages leading up to the transition – Mr. Lopez had to find other work.

Eventually, he started a small business making and selling gelato, but things were difficult. He was forced to buy his ingredients “under the table, for ten times the price,” he says, and government officials collecting taxes and fees for the health department took much of his profits. Mr. Lopez disputes the government’s claim to provide free services to its people, saying people paid through fees, taxes, and bribes – “they always take the amount the law says, and a little more.”

In 2012, he moved to Canada, where he found work at a printing company, Friesen’s, in Altona. He obtained permanent resident status through the provincial nominating process for immigrants to fill economic needs, and began to build a new life. “Work is the force which achieves your goals,” he says. Initially, he worked a night shift, going to bed at 6:00 AM. Twice a week, though, he was up again for English classes at 8:30, with Walter Hiebert, the man he’s now become close with. The classes were organized by Friesen’s, which also helped bring several of his relatives to Canada as a sponsoring employer through the provincial nominating process. They know that “I’m not going to bring anyone crazy,” he says.

Mr. Lopez has also built relationships with local Mennonite churches and a group they support, “Build a Village”, which sponsors refugees through Canada’s private resettlement program. “Everybody that has contact with us here in town helped us,” he says. He also welcomes new Syrian families in town. He has gotten to know them, he says, through the churches and Mennonite Central Committee, a relief and development organization which also helps resettle refugees in Canada. “They connect us,” he says, especially through an “English café” on Mondays, where everyone can gather to practice their new language, and some native Altonans show up to practice their Spanish.

Despite his warm welcome, Mr. Lopez’s transition to life in Canada has been difficult. “To be an immigrant, you need a big heart to take it,” he says. His first winter, he explains, he was very afraid of the cold weather, though now he likes it, because no matter the temperature outside, it is always warm in his house or car. More wrenchingly, his mother passed away in Venezuela last December, and he was unable to attend her funeral, because his Venezuelan passport had expired and he does not yet have a Canadian one. “I did cry many times,” he says, dabbing his eyes at some of the memories.

Today, with much of his extended family here in Canada, Mr. Lopez has restarted his gelato business and looks toward the future. Ultimately, he says, “yo busco tranquilidad” – “I seek peace.”

Seeds from Syria

by Kieran Murphy

“Do you still have all those watermelons?” asked Linda. “Yes,” replied Ahlam, “four hundred.” Francesca and I looked at each other shocked and then stared in awe at Ahlam.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “How did you get four hundred watermelons?”

For the previous twenty minutes, Francesca, Linda and I had made small talk over homemade shawarma while Ahlam stayed relatively quiet. Francesca Billington is a fellow student wh o was invited to eat with refugees at Bergthaler Mennonite Church in tiny Altona, Canada. Linda Loewen, a volunteer at the church, has helped privately resettle refugees. Ahlam Dib is a mother of eight who came from Syria to Altona two years ago, with the the church.

My first impression of Dib was that of a shy mother. She sat quietly and held her eleven-month-old daughter while we talked and ate. Loewen first piqued her interest when she asked Dib about her watermelons. Dib immediately brightened up and began talking about the farm that she owned and operated. Having been a farmer in Syria, she now grows watermelon, zucchini, tomatoes, and fava beans, though her Syrian eggplants won’t grow in Altona, much to her chagrin.

In Syria, Dib helped her husband run a sheep farm, planted and sold vegetables, worked as a hotel manager, and owned a clothing store for women and children. When the Syrian Civil War escalated, she and her family, including six children, moved to Lebanon. In Lebanon, Dib had a find a way to pay for her children’s education, as school was not free. So she continued her farm work while also holding a job cleaning and assisting at a pharmacy.

After three and a half years of living in Lebanon, Dib received a call that she had been accepted to move to Canada: in two days. Dib knew there was no time to lose. She began her two sleepless days by immediately going to the store and buying all the seeds she could get her hands on: she needed to continue her livelihood in Syria. She also bought Syrian food and spices and new clothes for her children—she had no idea what would be available in Canada.

In what seemed like no time, Dib and her children were stepping off the plane in Winnipeg with eighteen bags—two filled with food and one filled entirely with hijabs. Dib cried when she saw her reception, both from shock and happiness. Shock from the snow and the cameras (her family was the first Syrian family to arrive in Altona since the Prime Minister announced the refugee focus on Syria), and happiness that Loewen and her husband, Ray, were welcoming her to Canada. In their hands they held signs that said “welcome” in Arabic, and they greeted Dib and her family with standard Arabic pleasantries.

Today, Dib says she loves living in Canada. Her oldest daughter has 3 diplomas, and her second-oldest has two. Her 14-year-old son is the star of his high school’s soccer team. Her produce business is thriving and she has made many Syrian friends.

What strikes me most about Ahlam Dib is how she embodies the “resilient survivor”, a personification of the refugee experience that tends to be much more respectful and accurate than portraying refugees as victims. Though I knew most refugees fit this mold, I didn’t expect the first woman I interviewed to represent the resilient survivor in every way.

Emerson, Manitoba – Population: Transient

by Allison Light

It’s around 30°F at the Canada border, where Manitoba, North Dakota, and Minnesota meet. We clamber out of our warm vans at a decommissioned border crossing and look over the raised mound to our right, at the frosty stretch of land where refugees cross “irregularly” from the US in order to claim asylum in Canada. The sign is gray-black, with simple white font saying “Welcome to Canada: Please stop and report entry” in English and French.

Just a little over two miles west is the current legal border crossing, where Canada is trying to encourage newcomers to enter. But if they go through the established channels, many wouldn’t qualify to stay. The Safe Third Country agreement, a treaty between the US and Canada, states that refugee seekers must make their claim for resettlement in the first safe country they set for in. Many fleeing President Trump’s new immigration policies are aware of this, so the tiny town of Emerson has seen a huge influx in border-crossers. Greg Janzen is Reeve of Emerson and the surrounding towns (it’s like a mayor, for multiple nearby municipalities). He says the land under his jurisdiction includes 12-15 miles of the Canada/US border. The trickle turned to a flood last spring, when the area saw 170 irregular crossers in one month alone, according to Janzen. He says the number has stabilized at around 80 a month since the summer. For context, the town of Emerson has around 350 people, and “first responders” are members of a volunteer fire department who also work full day jobs.

It’s one thing to sit in the Emerson Courthouse and Town Hall building and hear Reeve (a mayor of a collection of nearby municipalities) Greg Janzen talks about refugees who’ve lost fingers and toes from hypothermia, and even one woman in her 40’s who died in the attempt. It’s another thing entirely to stand near the drainage ditch where some had made their crossing, where even ten minutes in the 30°F air is too much. He’s worried about it getting colder, but not for himself – Janzen seems to be built for this weather, casually chatting with his hood down and his calloused hands exposed to the chill. He’s worried that the “border jumpers,” as he calls them, will keep coming even as temperatures drop below zero.

“The media says – ‘It’s cold, dress.’ They still don’t dress,” he says. He doesn’t understand why the biggest influx comes in the winter, rather in the summer, and frequently in the dead of night. Almost all are single young men, but the families are the ones who make the photos. “For every one-hundred, there are about two [children].” Sometimes their cells don’t work in the cold, and the refugees knock on doors in the community. And though Emerson is growing wearier and warier of all of the passers-through, as of right now, many of those doors are still opening.

The McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning
328 Frist Campus Center, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544
PH: 609-258-2575 | FX: 609-258-1433

A unit of the Office of the Dean of the College

© Copyright 2023 The Trustees of Princeton University

Accessiblity | Privacy notice