Father John Molina, the chancellor with the Diocese of Charlottetown, thought he'd found "paradise" when he arrived in P.E.I. 17 years ago as a political refugee from Colombia.
A couple of months after landing in Canada he received a letter saying he owed the federal government $2,500 to cover travel costs and medical checkups.
But Molina was already in arrears.
'We have in our minds we have to pay in a different way — building up the community, building up society, bringing new elements to the life of Canada.' - Father John Molina
He had to start visiting the food bank in order to make the payments.
"When I arrived here I didn't have any money," said Molina. "When I came to Canada, I had $50 in my pocket. To pay $2,500 was impossible for us."
Molina said after he began working it was easier to make the payments and he cleared his debt to the federal government in about four years.
According to a federal government review, about 90 per cent of incoming refugees have to pay back a travel and medical costs under the Immigrant Loan Program. That averages more than $3,000 dollars each, plus interest.
The payments start coming due 30 days after the refugees arrive.
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Recently, the Trudeau government decided refugees from Syria will no longer have to pay the money back if they arrived after Nov. 4 of last year. But refugees from other countries still have to do so, as do Syrian refugees who arrived prior to that date.
'An additional burden'
Molina said it's time to stop making all refugees pay because they will return the debt 100 times over by contributing to Canadian society.
"We are getting a new chance for life and that is priceless," said Molina.
"But we have in our minds we have to pay in a different way — building up the community, building up society, bringing new elements to the life of Canada. Those are things that should be also elevated and balanced to see if that is something that Canada is gaining instead of just worrying about money."
He said Canada should offer "mercy" to newcomers.
"Opening our hearts, opening ourselves to receive these people who are suffering and struggling with life is a good way of being Canadian."
Refugee advocates like Craig Mackie, executive director of P.E.I. Association for Newcomers, agree.
While pleased Syrian refugees no longer have to pay the money back, the policy should apply to all refugees, said Mackie.
"They're vulnerable people who are coming to Canada with a lot of challenges — language, culture, trying to find a job," said Mackie. "And when they're expected to pay back the loan it's an additional burden that we don't think they need."