When Raymond Ngarboui arrived at Winnipeg’s airport as a refugee in 2005, he had a bad leg and was a bundle of nerves about not knowing how to speak English.
"How was I going to communicate with people here?"
Eight years later, his leg has been fixed and he not only speaks English but volunteers with the United Way’s speakers bureau. "That’s thanks to what I received from Welcome Place," he said at a lunch to honour volunteers at the refugee settlement agency. Manitoba received a record 1,484 refugees last year and more per capita than any other province and territory, Labour and Immigration Minister Erna Braun said at the event.
Since 2000, Manitoba has welcomed 140,000 newcomers, roughly 15,000 of whom were refugees, she said. Being a safe haven for refugees has been good for them and the province they now call home, said Braun.
"I’m proud of our humanitarian tradition... We are enriched by it."
Ngarboui remembers how it felt when he and a group of newcomers arrived in 2005 and were welcomed at the airport by Welcome Place settlement worker Marceline Ndayumvire.
"She said ‘You are no longer refugees,’" he recalled. "‘You are in a city that welcomes you home.’ That made us feel confident," said Ngarboui.
"I could see from far away that they were traumatized," recalled Ndayumvire, who now manages the life skills training program at Welcome Place. She remembers Ngarboui’s limp and thinking it needed attention right away.
Ngarboui, a government-assisted refugee, said Welcome Place literally helped him get back on his feet. After fleeing Chad, he spent six years in Cameroon where his leg was badly broken in a car accident in 2003. He didn’t receive adequate medical attention and it didn’t heal properly.
In Winnipeg in 2005, doctors considered amputating it but were able to save it with surgery. When it healed, Ngarboui studied English as an additional language for two years while working as a cleaner full-time. Then he went to work as a life skills trainer at Welcome Place then as a community school co-ordinator with the Community Education Development Association. He volunteers on the board of the Central Neighbourhoods Development Corporation and has organized community gardens for newcomers in the neighbourhood.
Ngarboui, like many in Manitoba, said he’s been able to give back thanks in part to all the settlement help he received getting established.
That’s what happens in a community with a history of and reputation for helping refugees, said Murray Taylor, president and CEO of Investors Group.
"Manitoba has been recognized as one of the world’s most welcoming places to refugees," Taylor told the Welcome Place event.
Manitoba’s immigration success story has made the news as far away as New York, said the chairman of the Manitoba Business Council that championed raising the province’s immigration levels more than a decade ago. Welcoming refugees is old news to generations of Manitobans, for some reason, he said. His church sponsored Vietnamese refugees decades ago and more recently refugees from Burma.
"What makes Manitoba so unique and wonderful? Is it our prairie roots, faith-based groups and cold weather that pull us together?"