Former refugees build new facility for future ones

posted on June 22, 2015

By Vancouver Sun | Link to Article

By Vancouver Sun | Link to Article

They fled political persecution in Myanmar and passed through Welcome House en route to a new life in Canada. Now 12 former Burmese refugees are helping construct the building that will be the first home to those who follow in their footsteps.

“We feel that we’re building our own house,” said Van Lal Nghak, a construction worker who arrived in Vancouver as a refugee with his family in September 2007.

They came from the airport to Welcome House in downtown Vancouver. They stayed there for several weeks taking English classes and learning how to do things like take transit, open a bank account and find a place to live.

Nghak, who had to leave Myanmar because the military government objected to the political bulletins he and his university friends were writing, said being at Welcome House was the first time he’d felt safe and happy in a long time.

Welcome House is moving to a new location at Victoria Drive and East 11th and is set to open one year from today, on World Refugee Day. Nghak and his team are involved in the construction of the new $24-million facility that will bring all the services needed by newcomers — such as transitional housing, a health clinic, counselling services, English classes and even a banking kiosk — under one roof.

The Burmese team was assembled by Ro Ling, who fled the military dictatorship in the late ’90s. He said he was jailed 10 times in Thailand and three times in Malaysia for being in those countries illegally before finding refuge in Canada in 2006.

All the men are from Myanmar’s impoverished Chin state and are Christians who faced persecution from the ruling Buddhist elite. Human Rights Watch released a report in 2009 documenting serious abuse of the Chin people by the Burmese army, including forced labour, torture, arbitrary arrest, restrictions on movement, expression and religious freedom, extortion and extrajudicial killings.

“When I imagine that one day, like us, people are going to come and stay here from Burma, from Africa, from everywhere in the world, it’s awesome,” Nghak said.

Around the world, there are close to 60 million people displaced by war and conflict, the largest number ever recorded, the UN’s refugee agency said in a report released Thursday. Three countries — Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia — account for half of them. If this were the population of a country, it would be the 24th-largest in the world.

Canada accepted 12,300 refugees for resettlement in 2014, the report said, compared with 73,000 accepted by the U.S. and 11,600 by Australia. Canada’s 12,300 figure is roughly on par with 2013 and represents a 17-per-cent increase over 2004.

However, a shrinking share of those refugees is supported by the federal government, with the increase in numbers driven by refugees sponsored privately by groups such as churches. Government-sponsored refugees made up 70 per cent of resettled refugees in 2004, compared to 48 per cent in 2013.

The Sun requested refugee countries of origin and provinces of destination from Citizenship and Immigration Canada, but was told to file an access to information request.

There are about 6,000 government-sponsored refugees coming to Canada each year, said Chris Friesen, settlement services director with the Immigrant Services Soceity of B.C., which runs Welcome House.

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