Support and solidarity: How Manitobans can help Muslim refugees

The Canadian Muslim Women's Institute says it's preparing for a surge of asylum seekers coming from the United States.

Winnipeg settlement services say they're already seeing more asylum claims since Donald Trump's inauguration

Osaa Ahmed walked through a field in November 2016 to cross the border into Canada and make a refugee claim in Manitoba. (Lyza Sale/ CBC)

Osaa Ahmed walked across a field for seven hours on a snowy November night to cross the U.S.-Canada border and make a refugee claim in Manitoba.

The Ghanaian man was denied asylum in the United States in 2016 and was set to be deported. 

He said he wasn't given a date for when he had to leave, but with the election of Donald Trump he felt he had to get out of the country on his own.

"I wasn't feeling safe because they could come for me at any time and send me back home and I am afraid to go back," said Osaa.

He found refuge in Winnipeg and support at the Canadian Muslim Women's Institute, a settlement service which aids all newcomers.

"I feel welcome here at the Canadian Women's because they give me warm clothes, they welcome me any time I want," he said. 

Osaa now volunteers at the agency, doing whatever odd jobs need to be done. He also provides translation services for other Ghanaian people. 

The Canadian Muslim Women's Institute said it has already received 20 applications in 2017 for help from asylum seekers like Osaa.

Yasmin Ali, who is the president of the organization's board, said it typically only gets 20 such applications in an entire year.

"When you ask them, 'Why are you coming here?' they are all coming from the United States," she said. "And because of the new laws and the new president, now they are just a little bit afraid [of] what's happened to them."

"People are also afraid because of the Islamophobia that they have created," said Osaa. "People really want to come to Canada because they feel that Canada will just accept them and then Canada will make them feel at home."

New Canadians are always looking for warm clothing donations at the Canadian Muslim Women's Institute. (CBC)
Ali said the agency is preparing for a surge of asylum seekers and is asking Manitobans for help. It provides everything from clothing to food to strollers and hygiene items.

"Especially for the ones coming across the border, they are walking with very little," she said.

Ali said the centre's client base has grown to around 300 families since Syrian refugees started arriving. She expects the number of clients to grow and suggests if people are wondering what to donate, they should check their drawers for old electronics. 

"We got some donations of cellphones that had some minutes left on it … so they were able to call their families and tell them that they are safe and where they are," she said. "They really appreciated that, it made a big difference for them."

Rita Chahal, the executive director of Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council, said what the refugees need is compassion — but they also need lawyers.

"You know, the ability to do pro bono work, lawyers could certainly help in that aspect," said Chahal. "We help do the paralegal work that is necessary. We get the application in place, get them connected, get them a place to stay immediately."

Free hugs for Muslims

Krista Michie is showing her support for Muslim Manitobans on her lapel. She's created a button to show newcomers they have a friend in her.

"I hug everybody, I am a huge hugger. So a friend of mine bought me a button that says 'free hugs' which I wear on my jacket," she said, which inspired her to design her own button that reads "free hugs for Muslims."

Krista Michie ordered 100 of these buttons following the fatal shooting at a Quebec mosque. (Krista Michie)
Michie said she was devastated by the fatal shooting at a mosque in Quebec City on Sunday and felt compelled to do something. 

"I can't image how Muslim people and other people feel right now, so I just wanted to do something to bring some positivity to my world," said Michie.

She said she asked a Muslim friend before ordering the buttons if it was the right thing to do.

"He said it is a beautiful sentiment and that it is very much appreciated," she said.

She hopes that the buttons will send a message of inclusion and love. She's ordered 100 so far and is giving them out to anyone who wants one.

Osaa said it is small gestures like this that go a long way in helping refugees feel welcome in their new home.