Hey there, time traveller! This article was published 25/7/2016 (2124 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
She started out in 1987 with just a recipe-card filing system and a passion to give refugees a break. Three decades later, the Hospitality House Refugee Ministry that Sister Aileen Gleason founded in Winnipeg is one of the largest private sponsors of refugees in Canada.
Tuesday, Gleason is being honoured on the 70th anniversary of the day she took her religious vows with Our Lady of the Missions and, at 92, is still passionate about making room for the world’s refugees who are stuck in unsafe places.
"We’re very remiss in reaching out to people where the trouble spots are," said Gleason, who in her 70s went to serve in Nairobi, Kenya, helping to arrange the sponsorship of African refugees who’d taken shelter there. She returned to Winnipeg and ran Hospitality House until her retirement in 2002.
Now, at her peaceful apartment in St. Benedict’s Place in West St. Paul, she worries about the tens of thousands of people attempting perilous journeys across the Mediterranean Sea to get to Europe from Africa. "Those poor, poor people," she said. "Why, when there’s plenty of room on the Earth for all of us? Why do we have people risking their lives? Canada could probably take a lot more."
This year, Canada is taking a lot more refugees — 17,800 up from 6,000 the year before, and donor-funded Hospitality House is seeing record numbers of arrivals in 2016.
In 2000, Hospitality House announced that during its first 13 years of operation, it had welcomed a total of 550 privately sponsored refugees. This year alone, it expects to welcome 600 by the end of July.
For Watson, Sask.-born Gleason, the call to help refugees started in the 1970s when she was teaching one summer with the Canadian Teachers Federation at Haile Selassie University in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Later, when she was serving with her religious order in Rome, she met refugees from Ethiopia, who fled after Selassie was overthrown by the military in 1974. The refugees from the former Italian colony went to Italy and ended up sleeping on the streets and begging for food, she said. "I started befriending them."
She wrote to her sisters with Our Lady of the Missions in Canada and asked them to sponsor some of the Ethiopians.
When she returned to Winnipeg, her order tasked her to come up with a plan for sponsoring and resettling refugees. Hospitality House Refugee Ministry was born, and Gleason was their biggest ally and champion.
"She’s one of my heroes," said Marty Dolin, who ran Manitoba’s largest refugee resettlement agency Welcome Place until he retired in 2011.
"She’s sponsored more refugees than anybody else," said Dolin, who moved from the U.S. to Canada as a student in 1965 and still has a South Bronx growl. "Basically she never said no to anybody."
By saying yes to refugees, Gleason helped changed the face of Winnipeg, making it more diverse, he said.
"When I first came here, you didn’t see many black faces. Now you see a lot and people are doing really well," he said.
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Generations of Winnipeggers with roots in the Horn of Africa — newcomers and their descendants — are in a safe place now thanks to Gleason, Dolin said.
"There’s thousands of them and Sister Aileen did it," he said. "At her goodbye party (when she retired) they filled Central Park."
In 1998, Gleason was recognized by Citizenship and Immigration Canada and granted the Citation for Citizenship for her outstanding work on behalf of refugees from around the world. Gleason, who was a teacher before she started helping refugees, was kind but no pushover, Dolin said.
When the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Winnipeg balked at the more than 1,000 refugee sponsorship refugees applications Gleason and Our Lady of the Missions had filed — "what if they all came at once?" — she got the Anglican Diocese of Rupert’s Land to take over as the sponsorship agreement holder for all new applications, Dolin recalled. Gleason knew they would never all be able to come at once because the government didn’t have the infrastructure to process that many refugees.
"She was the person who did what she felt was right and there was no stopping her."
Carol Sanders Legislature reporter
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.