Chris Yetman vividly remembers being at the Halifax airport in September 2013 for the arrival of two refugees from Eritrea. “I see a young man looking bewildered, dead tired, and with one small suitcase,” Chris recalls. “But he is smiling from ear to ear.” The coordinator of Saint Benedict Parish’s Refugee Committee was about to meet Daniel Haile, arriving with his cousin Thomas on his first flight ever.
“There was a translator from Eritrea,” recounts Daniel. “Welcome, he said, welcome, welcome. They took a picture and took us to an apartment and everything was ready for us — the bed, the TV, the phone. I am very feeling good.” Yetman’s committee privately sponsored the Eritreans, providing assistance for their first year.
Daniel had left Eritrea in June 2007. He was half way through grade 11 but desperately wanted to avoid military service and go somewhere that offered a real future. With three friends he undertook a harrowing journey on foot to Sudan, which included running out of water, getting chased by dogs and one friend getting bit by a snake.
He lived in a refugee camp but then left to work on a farm, and later started a small shop repairing cell phones. But Sudan offered no security, so Daniel went through a lengthy process to leave the country. After about three years and several interviews he was told he was going to Canada. “I knew about Canada in geography class. In my country we know Canada is a big and rich country. Canada helps people; that’s all we knew.”
He studied English for six months at ISANS and worked as a cleaner at Scotia Square. He left school to work full time to save enough money to bring his brother to Canada. Daniel now works at Dalhousie University as a cleaner and also part time on a highway job. He wants to marry his girlfriend in Sudan and bring her here. His long-term goal is to study mechanical engineering.
None of this surprises Chris. He has been engaged in support work for years and is impressed by refugees’ drive. “They have a great aptitude to save money,” he says. “Nothing has changed in two years in Daniel and Thomas’ apartment. After a year they got rid of the TV as they didn’t want to pay for cable.”
Chris is effusive in his praise. “They’re young, and even though they may not have a university or high-school education, they are street smart. They don’t miss a beat. And they are incredibly humble people; it’s all about family.”
The Saint Benedict group was created when three churches became one. Unlike other private groups, they sponsor families without raising funds first as the Catholic Archdiocese provides support. Once a family arrives, they pass the tray in church to get their needed funds. Chris is always overwhelmed by the church community’s support. “The Priest mentioned donating and the next day a lady, an immigrant, came in with a cheque for $15,000. We asked for furniture and we got seven couches the first day.” In December 2015 the group sponsored a Syrian family of four. “The congregation loves to see them,” says Chris, adding that the family’s religion isn’t important. A couple they requested three years ago from the Congo also finally arrived. He explains there’s often a long stretch of doing nothing and then they get short notice of an arrival – nine days in Daniel’s case.
“I’ve dealt with refugees for 12 years and not one case wanted hand-outs. They want to get here and work,” explains Chris. “We have a lot to learn from them. I don’t help for selfish reasons other than it makes me feel good. It’s just the right thing to do.”