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Whistler sponsors preparing for refugee family’s arrival

The Whistler Community Church Refugee Sponsorship Program is hosting a rummage sale fundraiser this Saturday, May 28 in support of the family.
canadian refugees
Plane tickets are the last hurdle keeping a family of five Eritrean refugees from reuniting with relatives in B.C.'s Sea to Sky corridor—and with each other.

Pemberton resident Selam Kibrom hasn’t seen her sister since before she arrived in Canada four years ago, in April 2018.

Along with her husband and two young boys, Kibrom arrived in the Sea to Sky as a refugee from Eritrea, in northeast Africa. Life “is good” in Pemberton, said Kibrom. “It is a big, big change [coming] to Canada, but the Pemberton community, everybody helps us, and they support us in different kinds [of ways].”

Here, “it’s peaceful,” she said. “The security... [we’re] free to work, free to learn, free to everything.”

One thing that would make life in B.C. even better for Kibrom is for her extended family to join her. Kibrom’s sister and her husband have also been separated for years, since Kibrom’s brother-in-law crossed the border into Djibouti in 2015. Her sister and the couple’s three children, meanwhile, escaped Eritrea for Ethiopia in 2019.

Bordered by the Red Sea to the east, Sudan to the west, and Ethiopia and Djibouti to the south, Eritrea experienced more than its fair share of brutal conflict prior to gaining independence in 1993 and eventually signing a peace treaty with neighbouring Ethiopia in 2018. As a one-party republic, Eritrea has never experienced a national legislative or presidential election. Citizens are required to serve in the country’s defence forces for a minimum of 18 months, officially, but in practice, that compulsory service often lasts indefinitely—something the United Nations has described as “slavery-like.” Kibrom's brother-in-law gained refugee status after 16 years of forced military service. An estimated 507,300 Eritreans live in exile out of an estimated population of about five million, according to Human Rights Watch.

The organization consistently criticizes the Eritrean government’s human rights record for “widespread forced labo[u]r and conscription, imposing restrictions on freedom of expression, opinion and faith, and restricting independent scrutiny by international monitors.”

With immigration paperwork finalized for Kibrom’s sister, her sister’s children and her brother-in-law, plane tickets are the last hurdle standing between the family’s reunification and their arrival in Canada.

The issue? With continued delays because of the COVID-19 pandemic, no one on either side of the Atlantic can predict exactly when the Canadian government will be able to issue those airline tickets.

Even getting to this point has been a long time coming for the Whistler Community Church, ever since it began the process of sponsoring the family of five’s immigration to Canada back in February 2019, through the Mennonite Central Committee.

“Because of COVID and other little blips along the way, we’re finally at the place where everything is done, and they’re just waiting for an airline ticket to come,” said Lorida Ashton, a member of the church’s Refugee Sponsorship Program.

The Whistler Community Church group opted to sponsor this family in particular, because they knew their relatives—Kibrom, her husband and her two boys—were living in the corridor, after being sponsored by a group in Pemberton.

The idea of reuniting with her sister renders Kibrom “speechless,” she said. “It’s just hard to wait, but one day they will arrive here.”

While the Whistler Community Church has managed to gather some funds to support this family whenever they are able to arrive, the church is looking to raise even more to help the five refugees settle comfortably into the Whistler community.

“We have different committees, like for housing and maintenance and for helping them with transit. Medical, education, finance, [homemaking/social]—all those sorts of things,” explained Ashton. “And we will be relying on the Whistler Welcome Centre for a lot of things. There’s so much to do, like getting them set up with their social insurance numbers, for example.”

Ashton added, “Selam and her husband will be here too—they’ve gone through it, so they’re going to be there to encourage them in the ways that they’ve learned.”

The sponsorship group has a lead on temporary housing for the family, Ashton added, but is on the lookout for something more permanent.

The church is holding a community rummage sale fundraiser at its Fitzsimmons Road N. location on Saturday, May 28 beginning at 10 a.m., with all proceeds from the sale going towards the Whistler Community Church’s Refugee Sponsorship Program.

Locals looking to help are invited to drop off donated goods for the sale on Friday, May 27 from 12 p.m. until 6 p.m., or attend the fundraiser this weekend.