Somali refugee family members 'feel safe and secure' one month after arriving in Winnipeg

One month after a family of 11 Somali refugee children arrived in Winnipeg, they are learning English, making friends in school, watching local sports and even checking out the latest Star Wars film. But one refugee ministry worker says the biggest change for the family is a sense of safety in their new country.

'Their heads are spinning': Family is learning English, watching hockey and even Star Wars

Members of a Somali refugee family in Winnipeg are making friends and learning hockey. (Friends of Hospitality House)

A family of 11 Somali refugee children rely on Google Translate to communicate, are checking out local sports teams and saw their first movie on a big screen — ever.  But a local refugee ministry worker says the biggest development as the family marks its first month in Winnipeg is a new feeling of safety.

"They're relaxing now. And there isn't the same sort of level of anxiety,"  said Karin Gordon, executive director of settlement with Hospitality House Refugee Ministry.

"I'm pretty sure that they feel safe and secure for the first time in many years."

The family arrived in Winnipeg last month.

A family of 11 Somali refugees arrives in Winnipeg, reunited with a brother living in the city. (Angela Johnston/CBC)

They had been living in Saudi Arabia but lost their legal status there after both parents passed away. Facing deportation to Somalia — a country where the family had never lived — the oldest brother, Fathi Ismail escaped to North America on a false passport.

He claimed asylum in Winnipeg more than a year ago, with his family joining as refugees.

Translating with help from Google 

One month in, learning English remains one of the largest challenges the family faces.

Gordon said she communicates with the kids using Google Translate on cell phones. She's looking forward to getting some help from a caregiver from the local Somali community who speaks both English and Arabic.

While the whole family is in school, Gordon said the children are focusing mostly on English lessons and math, alongside other newcomers.

"There are other Arabic-speaking kids at both schools... and these are Syrian kids," said Gordon. "They are already making friends with people who speak their own language at those schools, which is wonderful."

Basketball, hockey, Star Wars and a little Hé Ho

Gordon said weekends are packed with events and activities.

The family checks out a University of Manitoba Bisons game. The university's athletics department donated the tickets. (Hans Stasiuk)

The family recently received basketball tickets to watch the University of Manitoba Bisons, watching the team face off against the University of Winnipeg Wesmen — both men and women.

"That was really wonderful because the kids had never seen women playing basketball before," said Gordon, adding women are not allowed to participate in sports in public in Saudi Arabia.

 "It was wonderful for the girls, but it was very instructive for the boys as well." 

Somali refugee Amal Ismail takes in a Manitoba Moose game with the team's mascot. (Friends of Hospitality House)

She said the highlight for the boys in the family was being able to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens in a theatre, which was a totally new experience.

She would also like to take the family to Festival du Voyageur and outfit the kids in skates — especially in light of the kids taking in their first Manitoba Moose game this month. 

"They had never seen live hockey before," said Gordon.  "I think they're appreciating it all, but their heads are spinning."

'They're all wonderful kids'

A Go Fund Me page still exists to help with living costs. Gordon estimates it could cost as much as $40,000 in the first year alone.  

Gordon said there will be challenges down the road: long-term housing, and getting the kids into regular extra-curricular activities such as swimming or soccer, to name a few. 

But, most importantly, one month into their new lives in Canada, Gordon said there is a bond forming.

"I love them all. They're all wonderful kids."

Left to right, top to bottom, are Kinda, 18 months, Nasiimo, 14, Mustafa, 10, Muna, 16, Amal, 11, Mohamed, 12, Huda, 13, Nima, 8, Yassin, 9, Ayan, 15, Fahmi, 10. (Supplied)