Threads - "I feel this is my home. This is my place"

A talk with Heather Goertzen and Biniam Debesay about the power of intercultural hospitality, friendship, and the importance of community support in refugee resettlement efforts.


Manitoba — Mar 2024

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Listen in as our host Kyle Rudge talks with Heather Goertzen, co-chair of the Boissevain Resettlement Committee, and Biniam Debesay, a Eritrean refugee who has settled in Boissevain with his family. They both share about how the community embraced the opportunity to sponsor families through the blended visa program, highlighting the profound impact it had on both those sponsoring, and those arriving into the community. Through their experiences, they showcase the power of intercultural hospitality, friendship, and the importance of community support in refugee resettlement efforts.

Threads is a 15-minute radio program featuring the work of MCC in Manitoba and around the world. Threads broadcasts on CFAM AM 950, CHSM AM 1250 and CHRB AM 1220 at 8:45 am on the first Sunday of each month.

Episode Transcript:

Kyle Rudge (00:02):

It begins with a single thread woven through other thread, and then another and another until we have a single piece of fabric. That fabric is stretched, cut and stitched together with another, just like it. This process is repeated over and over and over until we have a beautiful tapestry that all began with a single thread. Welcome to a MCC Threads, where we look closely at how our stories in Manitoba weave together with the stories of MCC and its partners around the world.

On the coast of the Red Sea, in the Horn of Africa, nestled between Sudan to the north and the west, and Ethiopia to the south lies a relatively small, at least in landmass country, called Eritrea. For perspective, it's about a sixth of the size of Manitoba. In 2023, it had the population of 3.75 million. While in Manitoba at that same time, we had less than half that, about 1.47 million. However, in a rural Manitoban town, just a few minutes drive north from the International Peace Garden, there's a bit of a boom in the Eritrean population of Boissevain.

Heather Goertzen (01:32):

My name is Heather Goertzen. I live in Boissevain, Manitoba, and I am the co-chair of an organization called Boissevain Resettlement Committee.

Kyle Rudge (01:44):

Nine years ago, Heather and her husband felt the need to open up their doors and welcome others into their community.

Heather Goertzen (01:49):

In 2015, our community, actually my husband is a pastor and so he was meeting with the ministerial committee that one particular week, I think it might have been August or September, a number of the pastors had been having conversations in their congregations about, I think the refugee situation across the world actually was getting a lot of media attention at that time. What birthed out of their conversations with their congregations and congregants was just they decided to host a community meeting altogether and just see what kind of interest there would be in refugee sponsorship. At that point, there were no, we had no cultural ties. We had no real vision of what that would look like. They hosted a couple different community meetings, and then from that we formed a small committee and just started talking because our community had a couple experiences over the years with MCC. And so we reached out to MCC and just said, okay, we're interested. What? Please help. What can we do?

Kyle Rudge (02:56):

A community of 1500 people or so was all it took.

Heather Goertzen (03:00):

This is my friend Biniam. Biniam where do you live?

Biniam Debesay (03:03):

This is Biniam Debesay. I live in Boissevain, Manitoba.

Kyle Rudge (03:07):

Biniam is Eritrean and now calls Boissevain his home. However, Biniam and his wife and two children were not coming from Eritrea when they arrived in Canada. Instead, they were coming from a refugee camp in Ethiopia.

Biniam Debesay (03:21):

Yeah, I was living in the camp for like 10 years. Yeah, it was very hard time in refugee camp.

Kyle Rudge (03:29):

In refugee camp, there are some things provided, but it's not easy.

Biniam Debesay (03:33):

The basic needs like food sometimes shelter because you know, you should have to build your shelter by yourself, and you get little bit support for that. So shelter - basic needs, no indication for the kids, the healthcare and so on.

Kyle Rudge (03:53):

Surviving is your day to day, hoping that a country, a community, will open its doors to welcome you in for a fresh start. I asked Biniam what it's like being a parent during that time.

Biniam Debesay (04:05):

That's very hard to be a parent in a refugee camp, especially with the kid. It's not easy.

Kyle Rudge (04:11):

Que the BVOR, the blended visa office referral program, it's a government refugee sponsorship program where applicants are pre-screened, ready to go, and upon acceptance from a group, it can be a matter of weeks for when the applicant lands in Canada and is in your community. The term blended means the cost is shared between both private and government funds.

Heather Goertzen (04:34):

When Boissevain Resettlement formed in 2015, we actually ended up sponsoring our first Eritrean family in 2016 under the blended visa program. And then that went really well and we kind of loved the people we had with us, and so we decided to go ahead and do a second blended visa program in 2017. And so Biniam and I met at the Winnipeg Airport in July of 2017 when he got off the plane with his wife and two of his children.

Kyle Rudge (05:12):

And what do you remember of that day of arrival?

Heather Goertzen (05:15):

One of the things that I remember about when Biniam and Birkti and their children got off the plane, and I remember commenting to my husband Wes, because, you know, we were aware that they had been traveling for days by then, however many flights that would've been. And I know what it's like traveling with small children and we expected them to be exhausted and fried and frazzled, and they got off the plane and I've said this to you before Biniam, but what we were so like surprised by is Biniam and Birkti they were just laughing like they were talking to each other and like laughing. And there was just a real lightness about them that I was super impressed by because I don't think that would've been my head space after that long of a journey.

Biniam Debesay (06:04):

Because we know that's our turning point in our life. So we was very excited and very happy that day. Yeah. When we came first, as I told you, we was expecting to be at a hotel for a few times and to find job by yourself. But when we arrive here all the foods I used to eat in when I was in my home, not in refugee camp. When I, in my home with my mom, everything was cooking that night and I was really surprised about that. And I feel, oh, this is my home. This is my place.

Heather Goertzen (06:39):

We had the benefit of having that, so Mibrak and Yemane were the first family that we sponsored and so she and Mibrak and some friends had cooked a whole like midnight feast. So when we got back to the home, to the apartment that we'd prepared for Biniam and his family, we had a midnight feast and there were like, you know, I, being North American, I felt like it was maybe a bit much and we should just leave them alone because there were a lot of us in their house. It was late, but it was, we had a big party that first night. It was fun. Yeah, that was our initial meeting and our families have since become very good friends.

Kyle Rudge (07:23):

So where did MCC factor into this wonderful story?

Heather Goertzen (07:27):

I have a very specific memory of Darryl Loewen who is the, what's his title? Executive director?

Kyle Rudge (07:32):

Darryl Loewen is the executive director of MCC Manitoba.

Heather Goertzen (07:36):

In an event they hosted for sponsors one time, He said, you must have been so welcomed in order that you would want to welcome others. And that really struck me because my husband and I actually met doing service in Bolivia. Like I know, we know what it's like to be in a different culture in a different place and to have people receive you and take you in and call you family and give you a home and even though like our situation was very different, we were not in danger. We were making choices to be where we were, like it was different. That sort of welcome and that experience of intercultural hospitality was, was really, really formational for me. My husband and I are also both from the US and we moved to Canada 10 years ago, and so this community had adopted us as well. And so we had, we had that experience of being received first and knowing the impact of that, even just, you know, across the North American border, it makes all the difference. Logistically I think we would be completely lost if it wasn't for Maysoun and the team seeing us through really every step of it. It's really lovely to have them doing the communication with the government of Canada, you know, telling us what we need to know and taking care of the details that we don't necessarily need to know. Often it's about, you know, the documentation or the, all those like really bureaucratic, logistical, like confusing pieces and they are professionals at navigating those systems and that way we don't have to be.

Kyle Rudge (09:18):

The impact on Biniam and his family is immeasurable. But what about Heather and her family? How did they change as a result of these Eritrean refugees now living in Boissevain.

Heather Goertzen (09:28):

I didn't grow up in a rural community, and one of my concerns about living in a rural community is how isolated culturally my kids were going to be from, you know, exposure to people with different stories than they have. Like I said, Biniam and his family arrived in 2017. His daughter, her birthday is November 23rd. My daughter's birthday is November 16th. We celebrated their first birthdays together. We have a great little picture of them sitting on our dining room table with a cake between them. That has been such a blessing to our family to, partly because we're immigrants too. We don't have extended family here and so we've been able to kind of throw in with people and I love watching my kids grow up alongside different cultures, different foods, different languages, different traditions. It's wonderful for me, those friendships are really lovely. I think, feel very gifted that my kids get those as well. So my husband and I, like I said, we're from the states, but it took us a really long time to get our PR cards, our permanent residency just was a whole process as it often is. And the minute that came through, it was a big deal for us, but I think a lot of our Canadian friends didn't really understand that, like how grueling that process had been. But we got a call that day and we're invited over to Biniam and Birkti's house and we got there that night and they had this huge cake of celebration for us, which was such a gift, right? Like there was just this understanding. It was just a really fun like switch where they were, they were celebrating the fact that we had also found home, even though we've been here a bit longer than they have.

Kyle Rudge (11:14):

So what's next? What's the hope? What's the dream for Biniam, for Heather, for the community?

Biniam Debesay (11:19):

Yeah, I know on different parts of the world and refugee camps, there are people needs the basic needs. So if people can help, you know, to bring them to Canada, that will be great. I wish, and I will, I pray always.

Heather Goertzen (11:38):

I would add, like we just sponsored, a new family arrived to us in December under blended visa. That was our third blended program. And Biniam and I actually, and another friend were, well, a couple other friends were at the airport that day to receive them. Biniam was our translator. And so this new family of three just arrived, which is lovely. But in the questioning of like what we could do and couldn't do, some of the core committee members, of course like included our Eritrean friends in that conversation. Because now it's not just, we're not sponsoring your sister or your brother, right? Like, it's not direct family connections, but we're bringing in these people who are strangers to all of us, and that's gonna require the support of all of us. And so it was a conversation like, do we, do you want this? Like are we able to take in somebody unknown? And I have a very distinct memory of sitting with Birkti on the picnic tables after school pickup, and our kids were playing on the playground and I just said, Hey, did you hear there's this new family that we're talking about sponsoring, what do you think? Like it's a single mom and two kids. And she just lit up and she started clapping and she said, it's so hard for single moms in camps. Please, please, please tell them to come. Please say yes. And so I think like that was so touching to me because this it's a big ask I think for, you know, for our whole community, but also for our Eritrean friends because we now rely on them a lot as our translators as like orientation. And so we don't wanna say yes unless everyone's on board. And it was really, really sweet, I think for the first time in whatever it's been, seven years, to open ourselves up to someone completely unknown to us. And then to ask our people like, okay, is this something we can do? And the resounding yes, from not just white Canadians, but like the whole group now Eritreans as well was, was kind of amazing. Like it was really, really fun.

Kyle Rudge (13:55):

If the BVOR program is something that interests you, MCC Manitoba is offering an information session to learn more about it and how you can get involved. Refreshments will be provided, but seating is limited. So register by Friday, March 15th. You can find all the information by searching for Welcome the Stranger at our website, MCC Threads is produced by KR Words with story assistance by Nikki Hamm Gwala. Thanks to Heather and Biniam for sharing your friendship and story with us. I'm Kyle Rudge and this is MCC Threads.


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