Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of May 22, 2000
The stories of refugees
Helping refugees settle in new land a big job for parishes, religious orders
By ANH HOANG
WCR Staff Writer
A family of 10 El Salvadorans try crossing Honduras to Belize on foot. On the way, they lose two of their family members, killed by the military.
A Vietnamese family crammed into a small boat with half a dozen other families escape to the Philippines. They drift at sea for weeks without food and water.
Children in Croatia dodge bullets and bombs walking home from the grocery store.
These are not just stories. They are realities for many refugees sponsored by Catholic Social Services' refugee sponsorship program.
The 21-year-old program has helped local parishes and religious communities to bring 2,000 families to Edmonton. The story of some of these families are stories of hardships and escape.
Drago Slipac spent 47 months in a Croatian refugee camp. More than 12 of those months were spent alone without his wife and two children.
He was a Croatian Catholic married to a Bosnian Muslim. When war erupted between the two countries, Slipac was recruited to fight. To avoid it, he escaped to Croatia leaving behind his family.
"Some of our neighbours said he was dead," said Slipac's daughter Marina, now 17. "We didn't know where he was."
Slipac came home in hopes of convincing his family to leave with him. His wife was not easily persuaded. Bosnia was her home, she was born and raised there.
"He said to me we are going on a holiday," said Slipac's wife, Schida. "So we went with him."
They ended up at the refugee camp with cramped quarters, limited income and food, and uncertainty of what would happen.
"When you're at a place like that, you don't see into the future," Slipac said. "You just sit there and wait."
The Franciscan Friars, under the direction of Father Dennis Vavrek, sponsored them to Edmonton almost five years ago. Slipac's brother, Srecko, arrived in Edmonton May 10, also sponsored by the Franciscans.
As sponsors, the Franciscans were financially responsible for the Slipac family for a year. It is Vavrek's job to take a newly-arrived family to apply for social insurance numbers, Alberta Health Care and medical exams. He helps them register in ESL classes, take city transit and shop for food.
"It's like being a parent," he said.
"Parent" is the same word Slipac uses to describe the role Vavrek has played in his family's life.
"He gave us moral support, financial support," Slipac said. "He took care of us like we were children. He is our father.
"Father Dennis is my favourite cousin. He is welcomed and will be welcomed in our house all my life."
Most of the friars' sponsorship comes by way of relatives or friends of the refugees. Vavrek estimates the order has sponsored 50 refugees in the last 20 years.
The greatest challenge Vavrek sees is not having enough time for the refugees he sponsored. But the reward of new friendships and "the satisfaction of giving people the chance to restart their life" make the challenges unimportant.
Challenges for refugees however seem more difficult to overcome. There was a lot of crying for Schida during her first year in Canada. She missed her home.
For her husband, there was nothing but optimism. He was eager to work and wanted to be a truck driver, which he has been employed as for the past couple of years. Schida works for Sears Canada.
Since the establishment of the sponsorship program, more than 80 parishes and religious communities have applied to sponsor 3,500 refugees. They are still awaiting approval on 1,500 of those applications.
Though it has been churches that have been involved in many of the private sponsorship programs, refugee sponsorship knows no religious boundaries. Although run by Catholic Social Services, the sponsorship program does not choose refugees from Catholics only. Nor do Catholic refugees insist on having like sponsors.
Kim Nguyen and his family were sponsored by an evangelical church in Calgary. The Catholic family felt pressure to attend services at the church because "we thought we owed them for bringing us here."
A year later after telling their sponsors they would rather attend a Catholic church, the congregation found the nearest Catholic parish and marked down Mass times for the family.
"It didn't matter to them what church we went to," said Nguyen who now works for Telus in Edmonton. "They said 'Go where it makes you happy. You are not tied to us.'"
Nguyen was among the masses of boat people sponsored to Canada in the early 1980s. He and his family spent almost a week in a dinghy-size boat with almost a dozen other families before docking in Guam. There they stayed at a refugee camp for almost six months.
"I thought we would be there forever," Ngyuen said. "I thought we would die there . . . sitting there waiting for death."
But he never let on that he had such worries. He constantly assured his family they would soon return to their homeland.
"He said 'Vietnam would be peaceful again and we could go home,'" said Nguyen's wife Thanh. "I didn't believe him but our children missed their home. It made them happier."
The family didn't make it back to Vietnam, but ended up in Calgary.
The first year in their new home was a big adjustment. They had the moral and financial support of their sponsors, but they were homesick.
Kim worked two full-time jobs and rarely saw his family. His wife was lonely and depressed.
"He was never home and the children went to school and started speaking English and going out to play with their new friends all the time," Thanh said. "I said to myself, 'Is this better than a war in Vietnam? It was so lonely.'"
But a janitorial company soon hired her and the eight-hour shift kept her busy. She met new friends and discovered the opportunity Canada had for her family.
There will always be a need for refugee sponsorship, says Christine Baghdady, former coordinator of the refugee sponsorship program.
"I'm always hopeful that we will get it right and I truly hope and pray that somebody will put us all out of business," she said. "But in the meantime and in between time, I'll do whatever needs to be done to ensure these people are safe."
Since 1979 St. Anthony's Parish has sponsored 121 refugees. They have been informal sponsors of at least 500 others. As informal sponsors, the parish is not financially responsible for the refugees who are usually government sponsored, but they help them furnish their homes, find clothing and give moral support.
"This is the only way we can help others internationally," said Josephine Pallard of St. Anthony's. "If we can do it, why not do it?"
Many parishioners support the sponsorship program, said Pallard. But she has also heard from those who think refugees and immigrants will take away jobs from Canadian citizens and be a burden to society. Media attention on Asian gangs and criminals from other countries has shone the wrong light on new refugees.
"That's such a myth," Pallard said of the belief that refugees take away jobs. "They are the lowest on the totem pole when it comes to jobs. They take the lowest paying jobs and they take it with dignity. They're hard workers."
The language barrier is a concern for many refugees and sponsors. Some deal with it better than others.
For almost a year Schida Slipac was hesitant to use the English she had learned in her ESL classes. But one day at work, a customer asked her a question and when she had to answer, she discovered speaking English was not so hard after all.
"She came home that evening and she talked and talked," Vavrek said. "We couldn't keep her quiet."
Adjusting to the Western culture and language is difficult for many adult refugees. Some are optimistic about the prospects they have here; some are scared of treading into new waters.
"We were more afraid of what would happen to us," said Kim Nguyen. "It's never comforting not knowing what will happen. And you have a family to take care of, so you can't think too much about how lonely you are, how hard it is to learn English. I can't think about that, I have to work hard so my children can have a good life."
Slipac added, "I can't adjust Canadians to me, so I have to change, to adjust to Canada."
Adjustment comes much harder for those with unrealistic expectations of their sponsor country. North America is not a land flowing in easy money as portrayed in postcards and tourism brochures.
"They see too many Hollywood movies," Slipac said. "You always see the bright side never the dark side."