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Even here, refugees must stay strong

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"That which does not kill us makes us stronger." -German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

That's true to a certain point. In 2013, the stories that touched me were about resilience that's tested to the breaking point: people who faced the worst of humanity and kept going as long as they could.

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Around the world, there are more than 10 million desperate people who fled their homes because of violence, famine and disaster. Those I've met who made it to safety in Winnipeg know their good fortune and they fear for those left behind.

Zeresenay Andemichael arrived here Sept. 13 as a sponsored refugee from Eritrea, a country that's been called the African version of North Korea. Weeks later, on Oct. 3, two of his cousins were among the 364 bodies recovered from the Mediterranean off the Italian island of Lampedusa. Merhawit Gebremichael Gebrekidan, 26, and her sister, Semhar Abraham Gebrehiwet, 22, fled Eritrea and had been staying at a UN refugee camp where food aid regularly went missing. They fled to Libya, paid a trafficker US$3,200 and waited to be crammed onto the next boat to Europe. They drowned on Oct. 3. In Winnipeg, Andemichael is grateful to be here but wants the world to know a humanitarian crisis is happening. People such as his cousins are literally dying to get somewhere they can survive.

"Their goal was to be in a safe place," he told me. Here, he deals with his grief, survivor's guilt and culture shock while trying to find a job, take classes and endures his first Manitoba winter that will hopefully make him stronger.

For others who've made it to safety here, the threat of being sent back to the place they fled hangs over their heads. Refugee claimants get one chance before an Immigration and Refugee Board adjudicator to plead their case to stay.

In October, I spent two days listening to refugee claimants from Somalia, Eritrea and Nigeria being questioned by an adjudicator who would decide their fate. There were amazing stories about escaping persecution and the long, risky odyssey that got them to where they are.

All the claimants had been in Canada for years. Two older women from Eritrea came to visit their dying sister and were staying with family in Winnipeg when they filed their refugee claims. The rest of the claimants were working or raising kids and were contributing, law-abiding members of society.

The mother of three little girls who fled Somalia as a child said it is not a good place to raise her daughters and she fears they will be persecuted and genitally mutilated if they're sent to the country where she was born.

In December, after weeks of waiting, all the claimants were rejected. The rejections stung but weren't a surprise.

The board member who heard their cases decided the claimants weren't people in need of protection. Somalia, for instance, isn't as dangerous as it used to be, so claimants have nothing to fear about being sent back there, the adjudicator said.

All the refugee claimants are in limbo now, hoping for appeals and waiting to be sent back to the places they fled. If they're sent back, I hope it makes them stronger -- if it doesn't kill them.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 3, 2014 A11

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