Fundraising evening of film, food and fun May 4
By Christine McAllister, Erica Miskew and Pat Wilson
To say that the daily news can get you down often feels like a gross understatement. The sad and horrifying act of hate we’ve recently witnessed in New Zealand is one such example. But in those moments when it’s hard to be hopeful, a bright light of community activism and caring shines right here in our own neighbourhood with Ottawa Centre Refugee Action (OCRA).
OCRA was started in September 2015 by a group of six people who were moved to action by the plight of Syrian refugees living in dire conditions. As they spread the word that they wanted to be part of the solution, even in some small way, their group grew to 475 supporters and volunteers who raised $230,000 and eventually sponsored 12 families, bringing 37 people of all ages from Syria, Iraq, Colombia, Gambia and the Central African Republic to Ottawa.
First United Church and Jewish Family Services became partners in the OCRA adventure, as did many other local groups including Centretown Citizens Ottawa Corporation, Centretown United Church, First Avenue and Mutchmor public schools, Glebe Community Association, Glebe Neighbourhood Activities Group, Glebe St. James United Church, Ottawa Community Loan Foundation, Ottawa Public Library, Ottawa Mosque and Refugee613.
Even though the official sponsorship agreements have now mostly run out, new friendships have formed and OCRA members continue to be part of these new residents’ communities and support networks. Last year OCRA sponsored its 13th family, a family of five from Eritrea who landed in December 2018 and are experiencing their first winter. (See the December 2016 issue of the Glebe Report for background on OCRA and its journey).
OCRA families have settled nicely in Ottawa (despite our frigid winters), with many of the adults learning English and securing employment, the children thriving at school and several celebrating the arrival of new babies. One important part of the resettlement process is outstanding, however: many of our families still have family members living in desperate and dangerous situations overseas. In response, OCRA is evolving and is now focused on raising funds, filing paperwork and gathering resources to help reunify these families here in Ottawa. OCRA groups have landed and reunited one family, and are working on six other sponsorships to bring close relatives to Ottawa, in one case a 15-year-old son of an OCRA family already here.
We would like to invite community members to Opening Doors, a fun-filled evening of film, games, music, great food and conversation with friends, in support of family reunification fundraising and continuing OCRA’s tradition of involving the communities in which our volunteers and settled families live.
Join us on Saturday, May 4 at one of Ottawa’s great independent breweries, Beyond the Pale, at its new City Centre location, for a special screening of Tia and Piujuq, actor Lucy Tulugarjuk’s directorial debut. In the film, Tia, a young Syrian girl new to Montreal who longs for friends when she accidentally discovers a magic portal. Through this portal she meets Piujuq, an equally lonely Inuk girl who introduces Tia to her world. The story of the girls’ friendship underlines the joy that comes with opening a door to different cultures and reflects the experiences of many of our OCRA families and volunteers.
The film screening will be followed by an evening of games (growler-smashing anyone?) and music, along with a fantastic silent auction. Your $75 ticket includes the film, dinner by SmoQue Shack, a drink ticket and enough games tickets to get you started, although we’re sure you’ll want to buy more. Most importantly, you’ll be helping to bring separated families together, while building and strengthening our community. All proceeds raised through this event will be directed entirely to OCRA’s private sponsorship efforts (100 per cent volunteer based, no overhead costs).
Tickets for the Opening Doors event are available on the OCRA website: www.refugeeaction.ca.
Interested in volunteering during this event? Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Christine McAllister, Erica Miskew and Patricia Wilson are three of many Glebe residents who volunteer with OCRA to help settle refugee families and to reunify separated families in Ottawa.
By Pat Wilson and Katey Thompson
Ottawa Centre Refugee Action (OCRA) volunteers have been very busy in 2019! Last fall, OCRA participated in a grant program called the BVOR Fund that allowed us to fund the sponsorship of an Eritrean family of five under Canada’s Blended Office Visa Refugee Program. We share the costs of sponsorship with the federal government and sponsor refugees referred to Canada by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Our family arrived in December 2018. Here is the story of the oldest child, whom we call *Ali. (*Names outside Canada are changed.)
Ali is 16 years old and he hasn’t seen his parents or siblings in three years.
In 2016, Ali’s mother Meryam and her three girls fled their home in the Afar region of Eritrea, joining many Afar people who had fled from Eritrea. They joined Idris, Ali’s father, who had fled earlier to Ethiopia.
Idris and Meryam made an agonizing decision to have their son Ali cross separately to avoid the dangers of the family crossing the border with a young male. But after Meryam crossed, conditions worsened and it became extremely dangerous for Ali to attempt a crossing on his own.
OCRA volunteers have been working hard to reunite Ali with his family in Canada. We knew that Ali had to leave Eritrea for another country if we were going to be able to bring him to Canada. But the journey across Eritrea to Ethiopia is perilous; we knew that Ali would need help.
Help came from *Omar, a very brave man who had knowledge of the terrain. With Omar as guide, Ali left his village in Eritrea, walking for days, mostly at night and off-road, to reach the border area. This was a very dangerous journey for Ali. He could not be caught avoiding conscription to military service or leaving the country as an adolescent.
At the border area, Ali ran the last 10 kilometres through dangerous territory on his own at night to cross into Ethiopia. He could have been shot if caught.
Having crossed the border, another Eritrean adult helped Ali make the journey, again on foot and at night, to the relative safety of a refugee camp in northeastern Ethiopia where Ali could register as having entered Ethiopia.
A close family friend named *Yonas provided him shelter at the refugee camp. But 16‑year‑old Ali is essentially alone, as all of his family are now in Canada. Communications are difficult, and the camp is dangerous for adolescents. He has had a harrowing journey and it isn’t over yet.
Because Ali’s family was sponsored to come to Canada before they were reunited, Ali is eligible to apply to join them within a year of their arrival here, subject to security and medical checks. Filling out the forms for Ali was easy, but getting signed documents from him was an international effort!
To start, an OCRA volunteer located two Eritrean women living in Ottawa who were travelling to Ethiopia to visit relatives. After polite introductions and a degree of discussion, the women made room for Ali’s application documents in the top zippered compartment of their enormous suitcases, already full of shipments to other Eritrean relatives with equally compelling needs.
The documents journeyed with the two diminutive women to Addis Ababa, and from there to *Dawud, an English-speaking relative of an OCRA volunteer, who met the women in Addis. The documents, now in Dawud’s car, had to go to Ali in the refugee camp over 650 kilometres away.
It was no small feat getting the documents on Dawud’s passenger seat across Ethiopia to the refugee camp. The roads are nothing like Highway 417, and go through arduous country and a “wildlife reserve” (read: really big animals) with few gas stations.
At the camp, Dawud went by foot with the documents to locate Ali. Enter Yonas, the family friend, who welcomed Dawud, found Ali and sat the three down to review, translate and confront the paperwork a refugee must complete for admission to Canada.
Each document was then explained to, and signed and dated by young Ali under Dawud’s direction.
Signatures in hand, the stalwart Dawud drove another 300 kilometres to the nearest courier in northeastern Ethiopia and sent the documents back to Ottawa. Amazingly, they arrived in good order, just over a week later.
“Transporting” Ali to the Ethiopian refugee camp and getting the application documents to Ali and back were two miracles! We submitted our application to reunite Ali with his family three months after OCRA’s newest family arrived in Ottawa, which was only possible because of the goodwill, bravery and determination of a village of support spanning two continents, and one incredibly brave young man. Sometimes, it takes more than a village.
Ali’s sponsorship is one of OCRA 2.0’s six sponsorships of close family relatives of our settled refugees. One hundred per cent of the money raised at our Opening Doors fundraiser on May 4, 2019, and the OCRA Great Glebe Garage Sale on May 25, goes towards funding these sponsorship applications. Get tickets to our fundraiser at refugeeaction.ca/2019/03/26/ocra-presents-opening-doors/. Find information on how to donate at refugeeaction/donate.ca.
Patricia Wilson is one of many Glebe residents who volunteered with OCRA to help settle a family of five from Syria in 2016 and now volunteers to help settle OCRA’s family from Eritrea. She coordinates and organizes for OCRA 2.0, OCRA’s family reunification project. Katey Thompson has volunteered with OCRA since 2015 and helps OCRA’s family from Eritrea settle in Ottawa. She serves as co-lead of OCRA 2.0.