'We want to stay'—hundreds of refugees arrive in Sudbury in past year
No firm numbers, but some estimates are that as many as 500 refugees have come to Sudbury in past year
Riding in a taxi cab through upstate New York, a young Nigerian mother named Stella was Googling how to cross the Canadian border.
She and her four children were on their way to a spot where hundreds have walked into Canada to make their refugee claim, after being officially arrested by a police officer on the other side.
"It was terrible. My kids didn't know what was going on. They didn't know where they were going," remembers Stella. CBC has agreed not to use her full name to protect her safety.
"My kids are like 'What happened? Why are they arresting us?'"
"I said 'Just take it easy. I checked Google. We'll be fine.'"
Stella says things were fine in Canada, especially since January 2019 when her family moved out of a shelter in Toronto and into social housing in Sudbury.
They are among several hundred refugees who have arrived in the city in the past year, drawn by a shorter waiting list for housing than in crowded southern Ontario.
Stella's kids, now aged seven to 14, are loving Sudbury, and going to school.
Stella is in school, too, training to be a personal support worker, while working as a housekeeper part-time.
Stella has yet to hear when the federal government will schedule a hearing to consider her refugee claim.
"Please, Canadian government, look into our situation as refugees. We are here for peace. We are here to stay. We want to stay. Our kids are enjoying this place. Please," she says, her voice cracking.
Maureen, a 31-year-old mother of one from Kenya, is in a similar situation.
She says she fled domestic violence back home, landed in Toronto and applied for subsidized housing on a long list of Ontario cities before Greater Sudbury called her to say there was space for her and her 5-year-old son.
Maureen is also going to school to be a personal support worker, with her placement set to start next month.
But she says it's hard to feel settled in Sudbury when she hasn't heard anything about the status of her refugee claim.
"You're thinking 'Well, I haven't done my hearing' I see people are not getting [accepted]. So you're not really at peace. All the time you're worrying 'What will happen?'" says Maureen.
"We're struggling with whatever we have. We're still on social assistance, it's not much, but it helps. Supports my son, pays my tuition. I'm just sort of hoping that when I'm done with school, they'll accept our claim."
Both women are among the dozens of African refugees who attend United Pentecostal Church in New Sudbury.
Pastor Mitchell McQuinn says the congregation has doubled to about 150 in the past year and the Sunday school has grown from a handful of kids to 50 students.
He says they've changed how the church services are structured to fit what people were used to back in Africa.
"I would be heartbroken if they all had to go back home. I really would. From what I understand from research I think it's about half that get approved. So we'll see," says McQuinn, who has written many letters of support for his parishioners as they work through the refugee process.
"So far we haven't had anyone who's had to leave. We have had some families that have been refused and they're appealing now, so we're praying, but it doesn't look good."
The YMCA of Northeastern Ontario offers settlement services for newcomers to the region.
CEO Helen Francis says they've helped 784 people since April, which is on par with last year's numbers, but 108 of those are refugee claimants, close to double what it was last year.
She says their staff have been "very busy," but are focused, like other social service agencies, on making everyone feel welcome.
"We could always do with more resources and there's always more that we can do to help people. So definitely we're all busy," says Francis, adding that non-profits and governments are getting together to better coordinate services for newcomers.
'We want to be Sudburians one day'
Olu, a 38-year-old married mother of four, arrived in Sudbury in September after spending a few months in a shelter in Toronto.
"I see loads of whites and I'm like 'I don't think there are any blacks here.' But I didn't feel bad because the people here are warm," she remembers of riding the bus in Sudbury in the first few months.
Olu, who says they were "on the run" back in Nigeria because of some problems her husband encountered, was granted refugee status a few months ago.
She says her family is now on the track to becoming Canadians and Sudburians.
"I mean I want to stay here. My husband and I came here with the kids. We want to be Sudburians one day, even though we're not born here," Olu says with a laugh.