Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Refugee loves to 'make laughing'

Altona embraces native of Burundi

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Altona’s Dieudonne Mbarushimana paraplegic refugee from Burundi in Central Africa — displays some of his crochet work, including Angry Birds.

BILL REDEKOP / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Altona’s Dieudonne Mbarushimana paraplegic refugee from Burundi in Central Africa — displays some of his crochet work, including Angry Birds. Photo Store

ALTONA -- The man called Dieudonne (pronounced as if his name were D.O. Donny) invents these great turns of phrase when translating his thoughts from his native Kirundi into English.

His greatest joy, he says, is "to make laughing with the people."

But looking back on his trouble-plagued history, he laments, "I never see nice life in my life."

At a refugee camp in southwestern Africa where Dieudonne, a paraplegic from Burundi, stayed before his rescue, he says, "my life was almost dead."

My life was almost dead. You don't have to be a refugee from Africa to know that's not just a condition, that's a great line.

Dieudonne is evidence immigration outside the Perimeter Highway is more than an antidote to rural depopulation. It's also done for humanitarian reasons.

Dieudonne is not only a refugee but paralyzed from the waist down.

When the refugee camp in Tanzania was being torn down, officials tried to find a country that would take Dieudonne. The Netherlands originally agreed but changed its mind when it learned about his physical condition.

An immigration official felt compassion and put out word across Canada. The Mennonite Central Committee took up the cause. Altona has a reputation for having a soft spot for refugees. It has accepted 25 refugee families in the past decade, about half of whom still live in the town.

But Dieudonne was thought to have too many needs for the town's limited services. Altona was asked on three separate occasions whether it was sure it could handle Dieudonne. Yes, yes and yes were their answers.

Dieudonne arrived in 2009 not knowing a soul or a word of English. "I remember very clearly when he landed at the airport (in Winnipeg), and the elevator doors opened and he came out, and I saw the expression on his face," said Brian Dyck, refugee assistance co-ordinator with MCC Manitoba. "I said to myself, 'He's going to make it. He's the kind of person that has a positive attitude no matter what.' "

He's a colourful guy, all right. Dieudonne has become a fixture in the community, whether he is navigating the sidewalks in his mobility scooter, attending English classes or going to the grocery store. Last spring, he planted not one but two gardens (in community plots), while sitting in his wheelchair. He used a broomstick to make a hole in the soil, dropped in the seed and brushed dirt over the hole.

"He had corn, carrots, beans. He had so much he could sell it at the farmers market," said Ray Loewen, president of Altona's West Park Motors.

Loewen is also president of Build a Village, a non-profit group that sponsors refugees. Build a Village supports Dieudonne with transportation when snow is too deep for his scooter, or to take him to Winnipeg for medical appointments.

"He's been a fantastic addition to our community. We've offered him support and he's enriched our lives in so many ways," said Loewen.

Dieudonne learned to crochet and crochets his fingers off throughout the day (and throughout the interview). One index finger acts as a skein, pulling yarn from a bigger skein mounted to the wall, while the rest of his fingers interact like insect mandibles.

"I like to crochet with my hands to do something. It's very important for me," he said.

He crochets scarfs, antimacassar, table covers, Christmas tree angels, knitted hats with pigtails, and, his latest thing, baby slippers. He also makes "angry birds" and other dolls.

He sets up at farmers markets and craft fairs in the area, and has a table booked at a craft sale in Altona on Saturday.

Dieudonne, 40, whose surname is Mbarushimana, grew up in a small village in Burundi in Central Africa. As a young man, Dieudonne went to another part of that country to find work. After almost six weeks, he asked the landowner when he would be paid. To avoid paying him, the wealthy landowner accused him of being a rebel against the government. He spent the next eight years in jail.

He escaped and got as far as Tanzania, but his freedom was short-lived. While climbing a tree to break off branches in order to make a fire, he fell and injured his spine. He ended up in a refugee camp hospital in Tanzania for six years until the camp was disbanded.

Rural communities sponsor a refugee such as Dieudonne occasionally, usually through a church, said the MCC. Another Manitoba community is looking to sponsor refugees from Eritrea.

While Dieudonne has settled in to life in Canada, it's not all peaches and cream. He was robbed recently in his Manitoba Housing suite. "I didn't think Canada had people who was stupid," he said.

Yes, unfortunately, they're everywhere.

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 2, 2013 A4

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