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Princeton University students study refugee resettlement in southern Manitoba

It was a first-hand look at a global issue happening here in small-town Manitoba.

Princeton University students toured Altona, Man. last week to learn about refugees and their resettlement.

Margo Bresnen

Princeton University students toured Altona, Man. last week to learn about refugees and their resettlement.

A group of Ivy League-school journalism students visiting Manitoba last week got an education on what one of them calls “the defining issue of our generation”—refugees.

Ferdose Idris is one of the Princeton University pupils who came to learn about refugees and their resettlement.

Idris, 22, said she stood shivering in a field outside Emerson where over 800 asylum seekers crossed into Canada in the past year.

It was a first-hand look at a global issue that Idris believes will shape her PhD studies and the political consciousness of her era.

The number of international migrants reached 244 million in 2015, up 41 per cent from 2000, according to the United Nations.

“We need to find a creative, sustainable and moral system that can handle that type of migration and I think the first step is figuring out what’s out there,” Idris said.

Altona, located about 100 km southwest of Winnipeg, is not a bad place to start.

The community of about 4,000 people has welcomed more than 200 refugees since 2005, many through private sponsorship— a “fascinating” but foreign concept for Idris before last week.

The U.S. doesn’t permit private sponsorship of refugees, which in Canada allows groups of people and organizations to financially support them.

Idris, whose father came from Eritrea to the U.S. as a refugee, said she felt a connection to the Altona newcomers.

But the experience also fueled concerns for her about what she sees as hostile sentiments toward immigrants in the U.S.

In September, President Donald Trump announced a maximum intake of 45,000 refugees over the coming year — half of what the former administration had proposed.

“If there was a time to push for private resettlement, it would be now,” Idris said.

“In the U.S. we usually talk about refugees in terms of security or how it might be hard to integrate, but they (Altona newcomers) seemed so happy and content.”

There’s a reason why some newcomers might be all smiles these days, explained Ray Loewen, founder of Build a Village, an organization that helps settle refugees in Altona.

Two resettled families are launching their own businesses—including a Syrian chefs’ catering business and a Venezuelan family’s gelato brand.

Altona community groups are helping launch the two endeavors but a sense of gratitude is mutual said Loewen.

“The newcomer families have taught us so many things and enriched our lives in so many ways,” he said.

After meeting the Princeton students, Loewen hopes everyone, including himself, left with a greater sense of understanding.

“I think the more we get to know each other, whether its Canada and the U.S. or Canada and Syria, the better off we are,” said Loewen.

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