A family of eleven Somali refugees who arrived in Winnipeg from Saudi Arabia yesterday spent their first 24 hours in the city working on the basics: coping with jet lag, trying on donated clothing and making an emergency trip to the dentist.
"God thank you, we're just happy. We feel safer here," said 15-year-old Ayan Ismail in Arabic.
The eleven children — ranging in age from almost two to 16-years-old — arrived in Winnipeg last night during an extraordinary reunion with their 17-year-old brother, Fathi, who claimed asylum in Winnipeg just over a year ago.
The whole family grew up in Saudi Arabia, with the father working at the Somali consulate. The mother had previously passed away from cancer. Then, the father died from complications related to diabetes, according to Karin Gordon, executive director of settlement with Hospitality House Refugee Ministry.
After the father passed away, the children lost their legal status in the country.
The family was threatened with deportation to Somalia — a country the children had never known.
Fathi, the eldest sibling, managed to make his way to California on a false passport, then went to Minneapolis, making his way to the Canadian border. Fathi walked to Winnipeg, at first living on the streets until he could claim asylum, says Gordon.
"I told them that, maybe I [will not] see you again," said Fathi at the airport yesterday.
Now, his family members have joined the teen Gordon describes as a "hero" in Winnipeg.
The most recent family members to arrive are focusing on settling in to a home, run and cared for by the ministry.
Starting to bond
Some of the family members still wear toques and jackets inside — trying to grapple with a climate that is a far cry from the heat of Saudi Arabia.
"I cranked the heat up on the furnace, just to keep them comfortable," said Gordon.
The children speak minimal English and Gordon does not speak Arabic. Still, Gordon says they are starting to bond, through hand gestures and hugs.
"It's very early. Come back in a month, okay!" she jokes.
'They're all very smart and very diligent students'
Near the top of the priority list for the children is going back to school.
"You can not study or go to the doctor if you are foreign," said 16-year-old Muna of Saudi Arabia in Arabic. "Finish my studies, that is my first goal here."
"They've all been stopped from education for the last several years so they are going to have to make up pretty quickly," said Gordon, who hopes they can pursue post-secondary education. "They're all very smart and they're very diligent students though."
Gordon estimates it will cost about $30,000 for the first year of expenses to look after the family.
A GoFundMe page is set up online. Gordon says the ministry is "drowning in clothing right now" but could use school supplies if people would like to donate.
Gordon says the kids are welcome to stay at the home as long as they need, knowing this is just the beginning of a much longer-term commitment.
"We just will take it one day at a time," she said. "And we'll look forward."