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'Wanda Woman' up to the challenge

Welcome Place's new boss had good teacher

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Wanda Yamamoto learned as a kid how to make a welcome place from her grandfather, who opened his home to people in need of a place to stay.

Now she runs Welcome Place, Manitoba's largest refugee settlement agency.

"Wanda Woman" -- what Marty Dolin called her before he retired as its executive director -- says some superpowers would come in handy in her job.

There's a shortage of affordable housing, the federal government limits the number of private sponsorships of new refugees and sometimes Ottawa even stirs up fear, said Yamamoto, who is also the president of the Canadian Council for Refugees.

On Wednesday, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and Public Safety Minister Vic Toews held a second news conference in as many days to report the capture of a suspected foreign war criminal with the help of the Canadian public.

They were on a most-wanted list posted on the Canada Border Services Agency website. There's no mention of what they're charged with or if they've even been convicted of a crime, but their names and photos are posted and they're labelled war criminals.

"It puts the fear into the public," said Yamamoto, a descendant of Japanese-Canadians sent to internment camps during the Second World War.

"It affects others as well," she said. Newcomers with similar names or features to anyone on the website are also afraid, she said. "People are looking over their shoulder."

Groups that help people settle in Canada have enough challenges without anyone stirring up anti-immigrant sentiment, she said.

"It is always a concern, especially with the stuff happening in Norway."

The news of the world hits close to home at Welcome Place. Yamamoto said they're working with private sponsors for 196 refugee applicants from famine-stricken Somalia. When the catastrophic earthquake hit Haiti, the federal government fast-tracked sponsorships already in the queue for humanitarian reasons. Yamamoto wants the federal government to do likewise for the Somalis and others trying to escape the famine in the Horn of Africa.

"There has to be a will to do that," said Yamamoto. "Generally, Canadians respond to those needs."

Manitobans especially have responded to the needs of refugees over the years -- from Vietnamese boat people to Kosovars escaping Balkan conflicts, she said.

A decade ago, faced with an aging workforce and dwindling population, the Manitoba government developed an immigration strategy. It got agencies like the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council and other levels of government on board. The goal was to bring immigrants and refugees to Manitoba, help them settle, become productive and drive economic growth. Last year, there were close to 15,000 new perma nent residents. In 1999, there were about 3,700.

The Canada Citizenship and Immigration office in Winnipeg and Manitoba Labour and Immigration work with Welcome Place, Yamamoto said.

"We've been really fortunate to have that close relationship." Welcome Place has short-term suites on the top floors for recent arrivals. Settlement, housing and life-skills workers help them get into language classes, find accommodation, health care, schools for their kids and other programs and services.

Settlement agencies in other provinces struggle with different levels of government, said Yamamoto who, as president of the Canadian Council for Refugees, hears about their difficulties.

"We're the envy of all the provinces."

Yamamoto, who has a business background, worked for Investors Group until she left to raise her family. She volunteered through her church with the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council, which oversees Welcome Place, then became its manager of volunteer services.

"I couldn't go back to the corporate world."

More than 20 years later, she has no regrets.

"I wish I had a magic wand to solve all the problems."



Staff: 69

Volunteers: 206

New home: 521 Bannatyne Ave.

Top source countries: Somalia, Eritrea, Bhutan, Ethiopia

Services provided in 25 languages, from Amharic to Russian

Government-assisted refugees: 512 Settlement services provided to: 3,697


-- Source: Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council Inc. annual report

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 29, 2011 A11

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