When the Boissevain Resettlement Committee prepares for refugee sponsorship, they usually plan a big welcome feast for the arrival evening, one that typically starts late and lasts until midnight.
It's a unique tradition borne out of Eritrean culture – a nationality shared by the last three families of refugees the committee has sponsored from Eritrea, Africa. Including the latest arrival of two refugees on March 17 less than 24 hours before the Government of Canada announced travel restrictions across the country.
When newcomers Almaz Gebresilassie and Hermon Ashebr arrived that night, they had to take every safety precaution to ensure they did not contribute to the spread of the coronavirus. That meant after Almaz and Hermon stepped off the plane they couldn't have any physical contact with non-family members.
Although their first sight wasn't a group of smiling Manitobans at the bottom of the escalator as initially planned, Almaz and Hermon still had a warm welcome from their brother-in-law and uncle Biniam Debesay. Debesay’s family was sponsored by the same group three years earlier.
Because of the family connection, Almaz and Hermon self-isolated with Debesay’s family for their first 14 days of being in Manitoba.
"Almaz and Hermon were able to arrive before restrictions were in place on travel so we feel very fortunate that they were able to come," said Casey Guenther, co-chair of the committee along with Heather Goertzen.
"They're reunited with family which is awesome and they've got a good support network there."
Still, contact with the Manitobans who privately sponsored them is limited to waves through the window and brief conversations from the front steps, and the traditional welcome feast didn't happen. As far as the newcomers getting to know the larger committee and community it's going to have to wait until after the COVID-19 restrictions are listed.
The last three families the committee has sponsored are all refugees from Eritrea. It’s part of why the welcome feast is an important tradition, said Guenther.
“Within the Eritrean culture, there’s an importance of a welcoming feast or a meal,” said Guenther. “For the first family that came, we connected with some Eritreans in Brandon, they came with us to the airport to help with translation, but then we stopped in Brandon and had a feast – this was all part of the arrival process.”
The Boissevain Resettlement Committee started sponsorships in 2016 after they saw the refugee crisis arise in Syria.
"We saw a lot of hurt and suffering out there, and we were wondering what do we do? As churches, as individuals, as a community?" said Guenther. "We have a history with sponsoring families before through MCC, but that was as a single church. We wanted to do something more ecumenical involving the whole community."
Their core committee is eight people, then a whole system of volunteers, said Guenther.
“It’s quite an expansive support system,” he said.
MCC photo/Allison Zacharias
The first family from Eritrea the resettlement committee sponsored was Yemane Teklemichael, his wife Mibrak and their one-year-old who were living as refugees in Sudan.
The second family was Debesay, his wife Birkti Berhane and their two children were living in an Ethiopian refugee camp before they came to Canada.
The third family, Haregu Zerabiruk and her children, arrived last year.
MCC photo/Allison Zacharias
“When we arrived at the airport, we had no idea what was going on," said Biniam, reflecting on his first moments in Canada. "I couldn't remember anything from that night because I was shocked. When I woke up the next morning, I thought, 'what's going on?' because I was really surprised that everything was ready for us."
When Debesay’s family arrived, they were greeted with the traditional welcome feast and then brought to their new home, complete with furnishings provided by the sponsorship group.
“We are very happy because, in the beginning, we don't have any idea on how to act, we don't know what to say because it's a new culture for us," he said.
For the first while of living in a new place, they would have coffee almost daily with Guenther, Goertzen and other members of the sponsorship group. Coffee visits are not only culturally important for Eritrean families but allowed them to ask questions, learn about the committee and get to know each other.
With each sponsorship, the transition for the new family is a little easier, said Goertzen.
“There’s an existing Eritrean community that can help each other with things like transportation and general support.”
However, when the committee started sponsorship, they imagined the families would stay in Boissevain for a year and then move to Brandon or Winnipeg to join a broader community, said Guenther.
Debesay also thought they’d move elsewhere at first, but when they saw how supportive the committee was, they decided to stay.
“I came to Canada and got a job in two weeks,” he said, of how the committee helped his family. “We love them, our kids love them, so we decided to live our life here.”
With the families staying and becoming integrated with community life, it’s been easier to get support for new sponsorships, said Goertzen. “They’ve created such a reputation for themselves, I’ve heard wonderful stories about them which has made it so easy to get community support.”
“It feels like we’re all family, and that’s how they feel about us,” she said. “It’s what we love about Boissevain, the relationships and the community."
MCC photo/Allison Zacharias
To learn more about private sponsorship through MCC, visit mccmb.ca/sponsorship.
*Story produced by Allison Zacharias, a writer for MCC Manitoba with files from multimedia storyteller Meghan Mast and writer Jason Dueck for MCC Canada. Updated with files from content creator Kyle Rudge for MCC Canada.