It's home to pirates and terrorists, but to many refugees, Djibouti was a safe haven while waiting to join relatives in Winnipeg. Lately, it's been their curse. Since May, 158 refugees with sponsors in Winnipeg have been told they're not welcome in Canada.
To those who've been sending money to support people stuck in limbo for years in the chaotic African seaport, it's devastating news.
"I worry about the young people," said Marcus Askar, who came to Winnipeg as a Somali refugee in 1996.
"Those who are 20 to 23, they've got a lot of energy -- they need education and they need hope," said Askar, who has sponsored more than 100 refugees, helped them settle and find jobs.
Coming to Canada was their one crack at a constructive life and prosperous future. Refugees waiting in Djibouti have now been refused that chance.
When the door closed, they may go back to Somalia, where fundamentalists or al-Qaida will give them hope'
Djibouti is a small nation in the Horn of Africa with the population of Winnipeg.
"When the door closed, they may go back to Somalia, where fundamentalists or al-Qaida will give them hope," Askar said.
"When the gates closed and hope is gone, somebody else will give them hope."
The refusal letters from Citizenship and Immigration Canada officers in Djibouti are almost identical, with various reasons attached: "I found you were vague and not credible" -- the officer didn't believe them because family members said they got to Djibouti using different transportation. Or they were "credible," but the officer didn't believe going back to Ethiopia or Somalia put them at risk.
To Juhar Hargaaya, that's unbelievable.
"You can't go back to Ethiopia," said the Ethiopian refugee, who came to Canada in 1990 and has since sponsored more than 100 others who've fled.
Djibouti sends Ethiopians back to Ethiopia, where they are jailed, said Hargaaya.
His Winnipeg-raised son, Fewaz, 22, has been imprisoned in Ethiopia for more than two years. Fewaz was selling electronics from Canada and carrying sponsorship documents critical of the Ethiopian regime that were intended for refugees in Djibouti.
He's most worried about the four children of a 43-year-old Oromo woman who fled persecution in Ethiopia for Djibouti. Hargaaya sponsored the five of them and supplemented the mom's meagre income from selling clothes. One day, she didn't return home and is believed dead. After losing their mom, her children lost their chance to come to Canada. A Canadian immigration officer in Djibouti believed the kids' story, but thought they were safe where they were and refused them entry to Canada. Hargaaya said he fears for the future of those children, who range in age from 15 to 23.
Askar said the flat-out rejection of so many in Djibouti is questionable and a waste of money, human potential and tax revenue for Canada.
"It's a financial drain -- it's disappointing," said Askar, who was privately sponsored by the Home Street Mennonite Church. He's held down two jobs at a time to sponsor more refugees and pay that kindness forward.
Askar and the Somalis here he's sponsored rally to help, and new arrivals have jobs within a month, he said.
Hargaaya said many end up working in decent-paying jobs most people don't want -- a meat-processing plant in Brooks, Alta., and the Alberta oilsands.
"They come here very quickly and are self-supporting," said Askar.
Instead of spending money helping them get settled in Canada, the private sponsors will keep sending them money in Djibouti to survive.
The largest private sponsor of refugees says chaos, corruption and despair have poisoned the atmosphere in Djibouti for legitimate asylum-seekers. It seems Canadian immigration officials there are just saying no to everyone, said Tom Denton, executive director of Hospitality House Refugee Ministry.
"These are human beings," said Denton, who has written to the federal government about the "alarming" number of refusals in Djibouti.
He's asked for sponsored refugees there to get another interview.
They are in "triple jeopardy: the reasons for their flight from their homeland, the dangers inherent in life in Djibouti, and the probability of refusal by Canada even when sponsored," the letter said.
"These are real lives," Denton said in an interview. "This is not a numbers game."