In August of 2016, Shinga and Esperance Bienvenue came to Canada with their children, from Burundi as refugees fleeing violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). They were sponsored by four churches led by Mount Zion Lutheran Church. After some time, Shinga and Esperance started attending Erb Street Mennonite Church located just one block away from their rented house.
MCC photo/Ken Ogasawara
In spring of 2017, members of Erb Street MC decided to sponsor a refugee family from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Margaret Brockett, a sponsor group member, reached out to Shinga and Esperance to help facilitate this welcome by providing interpretation and to have a friendly face from “back home” to ease the newcomer family’s transition to Canada.
“We thought it was a good idea to have Shinga and Esperance involved; they knew what it was like to be newcomers in Canada, and of course the possibility of common language is such a comfort,” says Margaret. Shinga and Esperance were very happy to help. Having benefited so much from their own sponsor experience, they wanted to give back and support this Congolese family. Little did they know how familiar this new family would be.
In the Blended Visa Office Referred (BVOR) program, sponsors receive profiles which outline the number of people, their ages, need for protection and other relevant details– but not the names of the refugees. Only after the sponsor group has committed to sponsoring a particular family do they get a more in-depth file including the full names.
Imagine the shock and delight Shinga and Esperance felt when they discovered that the family they were sponsoring was their former Pastor Tito Gatako and his family! “Oh my goodness,” laughed Shinga, “I was very happy – and Tito Gatako, too. If you are coming and you don’t know anybody, it can be so hard.”
Tito Gatako and Dorcas Natimiriza, together with their family, had fled their native Democratic Republic of Congo in 2001 as it was in the midst of a violent and protracted conflict that had displaced up to 1.3 million Congolese. For almost 15 years they lived as refugees in a town in neighbouring Burundi. When that became untenable, they were forced to move to a refugee camp where they stayed for two years until they received a miraculous call from Shinga telling them that they would be re-uniting in Canada.
MCC photo/Ken Ogasawara
Patrick Harerimana, 19, who is a grandson of Tito Gatako and Dorcas and came over as part of the family, is now the family interpreter and recalled the day they heard from Shinga. “It was so surprising, it was amazing,” enthused Patrick. Dorcas, the mother, chimed in: “We were so happy, you can’t imagine.”
Two months after being told they had a sponsor group waiting to help them adjust to life in Canada, they arrived. Dorcas recalls that the first few weeks she felt insecure, “that at any moment they could take me away and send me back.” Then she adds, “We’ve met good people, our sponsors are good people.”
Their time so far has not been without challenges, the main one being the language barrier. For Tito who is in his seventies, and a pastor who thrives on verbal communication, the lack of English is an especially acute challenge. Through Patrick, Tito explains, “there are times when someone wants to talk to me and I want to talk to them, but it’s impossible. Even through an interpreter, it’s hard.”
Another challenge was that they had assumed there would be a larger Congolese community with Shinga and his family waiting for them. “We thought we would meet other people that we know but we found only Shinga.”
MCC photo/Ken Ogasawara
Moving forward, the family has two primary goals: for the children to finish school and for Tito and Dorcas to become functional in English. “I need to find a job because we can’t continue sitting here,” says Dorcas.
They have been humbled and deeply grateful for the generosity of the sponsor group: “They have been working hard for us; they teach us how to survive in Canada. They really care about us.”
MCC is very grateful for the generosity and compassion of sponsorship groups across Ontario, but there is still an urgent need for more sponsors. There are a number of families already referred for resettlement to Canada and we are seeking sponsorship groups to partner with us in this vital capacity. Through the BVOR program, the federal government provides about 40% of the sponsorship funds needed for these travel-ready refugees who could arrive in as little as four months.
Please consider partnering with us to bring hope for these individuals and families in dire need of safety.
More info about the BVOR program is available here.