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Newcomers Find Support at Edmonton Mennonite Centre
The Mennonite community provides a safe place for immigrants in a new country. Refugees like Nino from Columbia are grateful.

Every Wednesday, Rafael Nino and Sergio Diaz, drop in at the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers for a cup of coffee.

Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers in Edmonton, Alberta. Pictured are Orlando Vasquez, MCC Refugee Sponsorship Coordinator (in white shirt and glasses), Raphael Nino (black hat) and Sergio Diaz (black sweatshirt).

This is a welcoming place for newcomers to Canada, said Diaz, 22, who came to Canada in 2003 as a refugee from Colombia.

Diaz has a job cleaning apartments, but every Wednesday he brings Nino to the centre because Nino is unemployed and needs food assistance and other services provided by the centre. Nino, 58, also a refugee from Colombia, arrived in Canada in 2006.

The men come to the food bank at this particular agency because it is run by Mennonites—a faith community that both men had come to know in Bogotá through the ministries provided by the Mennonite Church of Colombia.

“I come to this centre because I think Mennonites are the same everywhere in the world,” explained Nino.

The centre, started by Mennonite churches in Edmonton and supported by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), provides a variety of services and programs to help newcomers learn English, find jobs and integrate into Canadian society.

In addition to these practical supports Nino said the centre is a safe and supportive environment where he can talk about the terrifying experiences that he and his family encountered in Colombia.

Most often, this supportive listening is provided by MCC staff member, Orlando Vasquez, who came to Canada in 1984 as a refugee from El Salvador. Vasquez speaks Spanish and understands the complex emotions that refugees deal with.

“Most of the time people feel lost and afraid,” said Vasquez. “They have vivid memories of the fears and worries they had in their own countries and they worry a lot about their future in Canada.”

Vasquez listens attentively as he translates Nino’s recollections of death threats against his own life and the rape and murder of people close to him.

His problems, he said, started in 1988 when his family was targeted by a paramilitary group in an anti-union campaign. They were targeted because his sister had joined a teacher’s union and was an advocate for free speech and respect for human rights.

Nino lived in 40 different towns between 1988 and 2002—most of this time he was separated from his wife and four children, now in their 20s. “I managed to survive somehow by working and selling my belongings,” he recalled.

In 2002 he realized that he would not be able to live in safety in Colombia and together with his wife and three children applied for refugee status in Canada. One daughter had been granted refugee status and resettled in Montreal.

Nino said he went to the Mennonite Church of Teusaquillo for assistance to follow up on the application for refugee status and learned that the church is actively involved in peace and justice ministries in this war torn country where death threats, intimidation, assassinations and massacres have forced nearly three million people from their homes.

This is one of 13 churches in Colombia affiliated with Mennonite Church of Colombia—a church supported by Mennonite churches in Canada and the United States and MCC.

“I found a warm welcome and friendship at the church,” he recalled, adding this friendship lead to baptism and active participation in church ministries until his application for refugee status was accepted in 2006. “I give thanks to God for allowing me to be integrated in that marvellous faith community.”

In 2006, Nino, his wife and 23-year old son were granted refugee status and moved to Montreal. Two children still live in Colombia.

“Canada is a very welcoming place,” he said. “My life work would be accomplished if I could bring my other two children here.”

Originally published on the Mennonite Central Committee website, September 2008.




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