Shady Roger Creek Park served as an idyllic crossroad on Saturday, July 13 for a small gathering of refugee families and their local sponsors.
Volunteers with PARSC — Port Alberni Refugees Sponsorship Committee — hosted a picnic to welcome three families who have arrived in the city over the last three years.
“We are so happy you came to Port Alberni,” read a banner at the picnic shelter, a mood evident in the smiles and laughter shared among the group.
The newest arrivals are Ghirmay and Zebib Gebremedhin, together with their baby son Evan, who came to Port Alberni a couple of months ago from Eritrea on the Horn of Africa.
Without going into detail, Ghirmay conveyed a sense of relief over the experience of arriving in Canada, “especially to have freedom here,” he said.
Hundreds of thousands of Eritreans have fled the country since an historic peace agreement with neighbouring Ethiopia opened the border last fall. For the first time in decades, Eritreans were able to leave a country where mandatory military service is so ruthlessly enforced that it has been condemned as outright slavery.
As his children played, Mohamad Omo recalled some of the memories of their lengthy escape in 2016 from war-torn Aleppo in Syria to Lebanon and eventually to Canada’s West Coast. He remembered the bombing and massive destruction in Aleppo during the height of the Syrian Civil War. He spent a year in Lebanon trying to get his family out of Syria. They had no choice of destination and didn’t know precisely where they were going, although the UN had specified Canada and Vancouver-Nanaimo.
Gleefully dribbling a soccer ball with his kids Saturday, Mohamad could not have been further from the grim experience of war and desperation.
“I am happy,” he said. “I am happy for the group, they’re great, and the country,” he said.
Comprised of parishioners from a host of local churches, PARSC has been raising funds, co-ordinating resources and providing assistance for the past five years.
Normally, the work of PARSC is low key in an effort to provide privacy for families, but an exception was made when the Omos arrived in Nanaimo in 2016. They were greeted by a delegation from Port Alberni.
“It was wonderful to greet them,” said Leslie Wright, a committee member. “They were frightened and exhausted.”
While PARSC continues to focus on fundraising to assist the newly landed family with air travel costs, they’re not taking on any additional refugees for the time being, Wright said. A lot of work goes into the effort of bringing refugees here, she indicated.
“In order for us to do this, we raised a lot of money from all over the valley.”