GRETNA — With the first group of asylum seekers to take temporary shelter in the border town of Gretna expected to arrive by this morning, fear and uncertainty is slowly giving way to support and congenial curiosity.
Hostile, tense and angry. That’s how several residents of the small town described a meeting last week when the provincial government announced it was converting an empty seniors facility into temporary lodging for refugee claimants.
"There was a lot of different ideas going around that weren’t necessarily true," said Madison Sawatzky, who lives with his wife and three children just doors down from the facility on a wide, leafy street adjacent to Gretna’s primary school.
People worried refugees would be dumped on their doorstep with no background checks and no screening of any kind, despite officials saying that is not, and has never been, the case. Others worried, despite assurances the facility is meant to host people for three days and at most five, asylum seekers would compete for what limited jobs there are in the area.
"Some of the arguments are a little bit bizarre," said Sawaktzy, although he understands some of his neighbours’ frustrations with how fast the facility announcement went from community concept to doors open.
The community got the news, and the next morning trucks arrived with bedding and other housing supplies, said Glenn, another longtime Gretna resident who asked his last name not be used.
"I think we’re just misinformed on a lot of this stuff," he said. "It was all planned prior to the meeting, that they were going to do this whether they informed the people in town or not."
The government is listening to community concerns, said Carolyn Ryan of Manitoba Housing. Ryan was in Gretna on Thursday afternoon to help ready the building for impending arrivals.
The long and narrow one-storey building has 17 rooms in total. Some are bachelor suites with three beds, while others are one-bedroom suites allowing for a few extra sleepers. Each suite is open and bright with a kitchenette, its own bathroom and a large window.
Three social services workers will work in Gretna and be available after hours from their residence in Altona, a 10-minute drive away. Ryan said the facility will employ a mix of local staff members as well as others coming from Winnipeg.
"We’ll cycle people through," she said.
The work is largely paperwork, as well as some chauffeur duties. Asylum seekers intercepted by the RCMP at the border will be taken to Emerson for processing, which Ryan said lasts "several hours at least." When they’re ready, the social workers will drive to pick them up at any time of day to bring them back to Gretna.
Once there, Ryan said, "We’ll do whatever paperwork we can with them upfront."
Some 500 people have crossed the border since Jan. 1, she said, and although in the beginning the majority indicated they intended not to settle in Manitoba, she said that’s no longer the case. For those planning to leave, the social workers will help with immigration paperwork. For those planning to stay, they’ll add in income assistance paperwork if necessary and give them a lift to Winnipeg.
Three days after arrival, they’re required to appear there before Border Services.
"That’s our trigger," Ryan said. "They’ve got to move."
The government is working with the community to make it abundantly clear the Gretna lodgings are not permanent. Although Ryan acknowledged the initial meeting was somewhat tense, she said there is effort being made to assuage lingering concerns. Initially, the plan was for 12-hour on-site security, but to appease locals that’s been bumped to 24 hours.
Despite the rocky start, Ryan said she was "pleasantly surprised" by the number of people coming forward to ask how they could help in the days after the meeting.
"We had lots of interest from community members," she said. A second meeting specifically to co-ordinate community support was scheduled for Thursday night. That’s right around the time Ryan expects the first group of refugee claimants to arrive. Social workers got the call four people were picked up and are currently being processed.
In the afternoon, Robin Neustaeter dropped off a box full of stuffed animals, as well as 40 "hygiene kits," each in bags hand-sewn by locals. The bags include a towel, a face cloth, soap, a toothbrush and toothpaste, deodorant and a brief welcome note.
Neustaeter said she thinks people in the community either know or are coming to realize "there’s a history of immigration."
"When the Mennonites first came to the area, we weren’t necessarily welcomed," she said, adding there’s a recognition people should "pay it forward and do good."
Neustaeter wants asylum seekers to see the best of Gretna and Canada.
"There’s a lot of mixed thoughts and feelings about what’s happening here… and it’s a complex issue, I can’t deny it," she said. But "this is happening, we can’t change that, so how can we make the best of the situation?"