Author: fidris

How housing can divide a community

by Kieran Murphy

House of Isabel, a newly opened aparment complex has already sparked controversy. The Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba (IRCOM) opened the apartment block a year ago. The location in the Centennial neighborhood of Winnipeg has pitteded residents and indigenous people against each other.

Dorota Blumczyńska, Executive Director of IRCOM, is painfully aware both of Canada’s colonial history and of the tensions between her organization and the local community. In the past year, IRCOM and its tenants have been victims of crimes including vandalism, theft, burglary, and assault. In August, a newcomer was attacked with pepper spray and had to be taken to the hospital.

IRCOM’s central mission is to provide transitional housing and support to low-income newcomer families with children. Families are eligible to receive IRCOM support if they have been in Canada for less than six months, and are eligible to stay for up to three years. Though IRCOM is open to all immigrants, but currently serves primarily serves refugees.  

The population of the Centennial neighborhood is prodomenetaly indigenous people. It is a poor community with a robbery rate higher than the national average and median income that is a third of Winnipeg’s. Ingdoeus tenena tpreiously lived in the appartment bloock that now houses refugeesm which has stirred some resentment in the community.

Dorota Blumczyńska recognized this problem and her stratagey has been to make a conscious efforts to foster solidarity between newcomers and indigenous people, both of which she says have experiensed oppression in Canada and abroad.

Blumczyńska says every event at IRCOM starts with a territorial acknowledgement that recognizes the native claim to the land. On World Refugee Day, newcomers wrote letters to Prime Minister Trudeau about increasing funding for indigenous child welfare.

 Educating newcomers about indigenous people is important in Blumczyńska’s eye’s not just because of tensions from the outside, but because many have never heard of the indigenous people of Canada, and those who have generally do not have positive impressions. IRCOM has introduced activities that recongized the mutual oppression of both communties.


The little UN of Winnipeg

By Ferdose Idris 

As I look around the multipurpose room set for lunch, I notice food from all around the world. Rita Chahal laughs, “We sometimes call our lunch room the United Nations. Chahal is the Executive Director of Welcome Place, formally know as Manitoba interfaith Immigration Council, which has provided resettlement assistance to government sponsored refugees and refugee claimants for the last 70 years. “Government sponsored refugees are our bread-and-butter” said Rita. They offer services from the moment they arrive at the airport until they become Canadian citizens. Welcome place is unique, because caseworkers can continue on with the same client from start to finish.

Over 90% of the staff at Welcome Place are refugees themselves. This is because language knowledge and cultural competency are their top priorities when hiring said Marta Kalita, the Director of Settlement Services. “We want people who understand what it means to be a refugee” because they understands the resettlement process making them suited to do this work.

“They also act as role models” for incoming refugees and gives newcomers hope that they can be as successful. Fetheya Abdela is an example. Fetheya and her family immigrated to Canada as refugees in the late 1980s. Today she works as a settlement councilor and provides services including life lessons– some have never seen a washing machine or microwave before–making sure their children go to school.

“It’s really competitive to work here” said Reem Hailemolokot a former refugee from Eritrea and settlement counselor at Welcome Place. “We had over 40 applicants for the receptionist position in just 2 days…everyone wants to work here” said Reem. As I spoke to staff and volunteers alike, all of them shared similar sentiments, that this place and doing this type of work has enriched them. Laura Antymniuk is one of these volunteer staff. As a first year law student at the University of Manitoba, this has been her first clinical experience working with clients. There are about 20 law students volunteering with Welcome Place. They receive credit for the work and Antymniuk feels it has been an answer to her anxiety and stress. In the grand scheme of things, “When you hear their stories…it helps you situate your experiences” it also has “made me more politically aware about what’s going on around the world as well as Canadian politics at home”.

Fetheya Abdela a Settlement Counselor at Welcome Place, working in her office.

Another Story

by Maddy Pauchet

Yahya Samatar’s red sweater is zipped up to his neck, and he stands in a corner of the room, swarmed by journalism students who bombard him with questions. “Why did you leave your home?” “How did you get to Winnipeg?” “Did you come straight from Somalia?”

To each question, he gives a shy smile and answers, “that’s another story.” In Somalia Samatar worked as a human rights activist and journalist. There, he was arrested three times, and finally released only on the condition that he would leave the country.

Karin Gordon, the executive director of settlement for Hospitality House Refugee Ministry, explains that the Somali Police Force operates on a bounty system. “They are paid $250 for each person that they jail.”

Rather than face Somalia’s corrupt political system, Samatar fled. He left behind his three children and his wife, who he did not know was pregnant with his fourth child. He spent three months in Brazil before coming to the United States, where he was arrested and detained for nearly eight months while his refugee claim was processed—and eventually, denied. He was released in Louisiana, and a Somali friend resettled in Ohio drove down to pick him up. Samatar hid from the United States police, but though his friend tried to convince him to stay in Ohio, he refused to live in a place where he could not work. Instead, he chose to cross the Canadian border and seek asylum in Manitoba.

His friend drove him past Minneapolis, and dropped him off a few hours walking distance from the Canadian border. “I didn’t have smugglers,” says Samatar, who had to make the journey alone carrying only a backpack with his meager possessions: some clothes, food, and pictures of his family. According to him, other asylum-seekers coming across the Canadian border pay anywhere between $200-$1000 CAD to human traffickers who guide them through the prairies.

Without assistance, Samatar did not know what to expect or what to look for, and he lost his way. “I had heard of Canada, but never of Manitoba.” It was an early August morning, but still cold. Samatar came upon a river—and without knowing exactly what was on the other side, he stripped down and crossed it.

A Canadian Post driver found him shivering in his underwear on the side of a road—on the Canadian side of the border. He offered him a fleece and a ride to the police station, where an extra pair of uniform pants was unearthed—“so by the time I got him, he was decent,” laughs Gordon, who drove down from Winnipeg to pick him up.

With the support of Hospitality House, Samatar filed an asylum claim in Canada, which was approved. He hopes to bring his family over—their claim has been accepted as well, and they are only waiting on the paperwork. Samatar says that they are safe in Ethiopia, and though he has never met his youngest son Adnan, they Skype regularly.

Samatar now works as a fundraising consultant in Winnipeg—and according to Gordon, “You might be hearing from him—he set up a GoFundMe to save up for their airfare.”

Yahya Samatar speaks to a Princeton journalism class

Martha Stewart for Refugees

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.



Lessons for refugees include the plight of Indigenous people

By Rose Gilbert

When the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba (IRCOM) opened in a predominantly indigenous neighborhood in 2016, it created tension between Canada’s oldest and newest residents.

“We essentially came as settlers,” said Dorota Blumczynska, the IRCOM Executive Director. She explained that before IRCOM moved in, the apartment building housed local indigenous families. IRCOM received fourteen million dollars in government funding to renovate the building to house immigrants and refugees.

For many local residents, the shiny new IRCOM facility seemed to prove that the government was overlooking their community’s problems in order to take care of the newcomers. IRCOM’s mandate does not extend to providing services (like subsidized housing, childcare, money-managing, and job search help) to the local indigenous population, which adds to their hostility. Blumczynska said this resentment “leads to some tension and aggression,” and occasionally, violence. She said the building has been tagged, there have been minor thefts, and once a group of children pepper sprayed another in the building’s courtyard.

But this animosity is not one-sided. According to Blumczynska, most refugees and asylum-seekers don’t know much about indigenous people when they come to Canada. They are often exposed to negative and oversimplified portrayals. She said that IRCOM works to educate the newcomers about the indigenous people in Canada. The IRCOM website includes a guide for newcomers, which give a brief overview of the history of indigenous people in Canada, as well as a list of tribes, their languages, location, traditional community structure, spirituality, and traditions. Rayne Graff, IRCOM Volunteer & Community Services Executive Assistant, is a member of the Long Plain First Nation. In this role, Graff helps to build relationships and a sense of community between IRCOM residents and the surrounding neighborhood.

IRCOM isn’t the only one trying build bridges between these two communities. Rita Chahal, the Executive Director of the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council, said that the push to foster a sense of community between indigenous and refugee communities is a “sector-wide” effort amongst resettlement organizations.

Indigenous groups are also working to connect with refugees and refugee claimants. Karyn Pugliese, Executive Director at Canada’s only aboriginal television network, said there have been welcoming ceremonies organized by indigenous elders, while others have collected money and other donations for refugees. Pugliese stressed that every individual has a different opinion.

Crash-Course Canadians

By Allison Light

Around fifteen adults from all over the world sit in a bright classroom, eyes fixed on their teacher, Anita Sharma, who has spent the morning teaching them about navigating health issues and resources in their new home country. They’re at the Altered Minds Inc. Entry Program headquarters, where about 5,000 of the 12,000 yearly newcomers to Manitoba learn about assimilating to life in Canada, according to Executive Director Grace Eidse. This particular classroom holds the Express course, for immigrants with a solid grasp of English – they’ll go through the program in a week, while the English beginners will spend a month taking classes.

Sharma is explaining Canadian conventions on disciplining children, and how many parents may need to soften their parenting styles, even if corporeal punishment was habitual where they coming from. As she explains how teachers could report families if their children show signs of having been physically disciplined, a man pipes up from the back: “Back home, even if you’re caught by police, police will help you beat them again!” The whole room laughs – though they are from Pakistan, the Philippines, Israel, and elsewhere, most can relate.

“We are nobody to judge any culture,” says Sharma. “If your father disciplined you like that, hats off to him – that’s what he knew.”

The Entry Program was founded in 2005 as an orientation experience and English language boost for all newcomers to Canada, from wealthy economic immigrants to resettled refugees. Funded by the federal government, the organization offers classes in the morning, afternoon, and evening. The Express course spends one day each on Health, Employment, Laws, and Places to Go, with a final day for one-on-one private advising.

“Here’s the room where speakers come,” says Eidse, gesturing to a larger classroom. They get regular visitors from law enforcement, legal aid, employment agencies, and others. “Sometimes we’ve got 20, 25 languages going at once,” she says. “We had 194 interpreters here in September alone.”

Altered State Inc. employs about 20 people full-time, and many are former program participants. Faith Ugwu, who came from Nigeria with her husband, has only been in Canada for a year. She says the Entry Program is great at teaching the subtler social skills that new arrivals may not understand. For her, eye contact was the strangest adjustment. Back home, she says, “you don’t even look your dad or mom in the face.” Here, proper eye contact is essential for finding jobs and being polite in everyday scenarios. There are other, more tenuous, lines to be redrawn – household dynamics, for example. “For women it is completely different.” In Nigeria, Ugwu explains, men automatically were treated with a level of respect. But in Manitoba? “There’s no gender segregation.”

At the end of the lesson, Sharma writes a list on the board: 1.) Honeymoon 2.) Conflict 3.) Recovery 4.) Adaptation. These are the stages of cultural adaptation. She asks: “How many of you are in the conflict stage?” Various students shrug and noncommittally wave a hand. Vova Osmanov, a 23-year-old Russian coming from Israel, fully extends both arms into the air.

“I was a very open person,” he says, explaining that he liked being outside and hanging out with his friends. Here, the former has been made difficult by the cold, the latter by not knowing people his age yet. It feels like “you fall down with the face on the ground,” he says.

Sharma nods along. “It’s all part of the process”.

Going from “I love Canada” to “I love Canada, eh?”

by Nickolas Wu

“Today we’re going to learn about cultural adjustment,” said Anita Sharma. Sharma is a cultural adjustment teacher for the high English proficiency students at Altered Minds, Inc., a federally funded agency taking part in Canada’s ENTRY program for newly arrived immigrants. At Altered Minds, newly arrived migrants learn English, take courses on Canadian culture, and are walked through the acculturation process in Canada. The class is funded by the federal government, and a prominently displayed plaque in the front office proclaims as such to all visitors.

Chinese investment migrants, who have to prove a net worth of $1,600,000 CND and invest $800,000 CND in Canada, mingled with newly resettled refugees who had come with few possessions to learn about the adjustment process in Canada. Tian-en Zhou, a Chinese investment immigrant from Beijing, China, was still placed in the same classes as Tasir Al-frata, an Iraqi migrant who had fled Baghdad.

Sharma wrote a list of four items on the board: 1) honeymoon 2) conflict 3) recovery 4) adaptation. “What does this mean, class?” she asked. They demurred. “These are the stages of cultural adaptation,” she said. One of the students, Sergey Osmanov, a Russian migrant by way of Israel quipped, “so this is the process of going from ‘I love Canada’ to ‘I love Canada, eh?’”

Sharma’s class is a higher English level cultural adjustment class, but Altered Minds teaches the new immigrants everything from Canadian expectations of child rearing (“don’t beat your children”), employment prospects (“here’s how to write a resume and cover letter”), to something as seemingly simple as traffic laws (“drive on the right side of the road, not the left”).

Grace Eidse, the founder and CEO of Altered Minds, explained that the group’s founding in 2005 came from the need to educate newly arrived migrants in the ways of Canadian life. The name came from the idea that “we are transformed when we come together,” she said. At least half of the current staff of 20 people are immigrants themselves.

Altered Minds does teach children. That job is left to the Needs Centre, another nonprofit organization that provides similar services for children. But this bifurcation of services makes it difficult for families with children to attend classes says Eidse, “people can’t attend if they have children,” since there is nowhere to get child care.

Newly arrived migrants take a break from their classes.

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