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'Maxed out' Welcome Place kicks off fundraising amid refugee influx

Having helped 26 asylum seekers get situated in Winnipeg since Saturday, the non-profit needs more staff and space, says executive director.

Rita Chahal, executive director of Welcome Place, has asked the public and private sectors for fundraising help to assist the influx of refugees crossing the U.S.-Manitoba border.

Jessica Botelho-Urbanski/For Metro

Rita Chahal, executive director of Welcome Place, has asked the public and private sectors for fundraising help to assist the influx of refugees crossing the U.S.-Manitoba border.

As Welcome Place staff held a press conference Monday to discuss their "maxed out" services, one of their volunteer drivers was headed to the Port of Emerson to pick up five more asylum seekers who crossed the border overnight.

RCMP said Monday they intercepted 28 people illegally coming into Canada over the weekend. Since Jan. 1, police have intercepted 69 men, women and children.

Rita Chahal, executive director of Welcome Place, said she recently held a six-month-old baby and looked into the eyes of two- and four-year-olds kids who trekked across the border with their parents Saturday in hopes of getting to Winnipeg.

“When I saw the little kids, I always think about ‘What if something had happened?’ We don’t want to see a situation like we’ve seen a couple years ago that brought all of us to our knees,” she said, referring to the image of Alan Kurdi, a Syrian toddler whose body washed up on the shores of a beach in Turkey in 2015.

Welcome Place temporarily housed the 21 asylum seekers they picked up from the border in their own facility on Bannatyne Avenue. Chahal said this is technically not allowed by the federal government, who only pay them to help government and privately-sponsored refugees. The refugee claimants will be moved to other locations in the community soon, including the Salvation Army. 

But the decision to make an exception temporarily “wasn’t a difficult choice for me,” said Chahal.

“We have managed what might appear to be a crisis very quickly, very efficiently,” she said. “We look at this from a very compassionate, from a humanitarian perspective. And when people come to our door and need our help, that’s what we’ll do. We’ll help them.”

Welcome Place is asking for financial donations from the public – not goods or food, which they don’t have room to store. 

The agency wants help from the city and province in finding temporary housing spaces for refugee claimants. Chahal said she spoke to Mayor Brian Bowman Monday about this, but had not yet heard from the province.

Money raised by the public will go toward finding more temporary housing spaces, hiring more Welcome Place staff, paying for drives to the border and more. 

Jean Pierre Venegas*, who works at Welcome Place, said the new arrivals have three days to make their refugee claims in Canada. They must gather documents and information that corroborates the last 10 years of their lives chronologically.

Law students from the University of Winnipeg have volunteered to help the surge of asylum seekers with their paperwork, said Welcome Place's Ermias Yoseph.

The Winnipeg Foundation stepped up with $33,000 in emergency funding for Welcome Place on Monday. Strategic projects associate Jennifer Partridge said $23,000 of the foundation’s total came from an anonymous donor “who felt compelled and inspired to support the refugees.”

To donate to Welcome Place and the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council, visit miic.ca.

By the numbers

• Welcome Place and the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council help about 520 refugees per year on average, said executive director Rita Chahal.

• This year, they've already aided 300 people and counting.

*Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Jean Pierre Venegas's name. We regret the error.

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