The door to Yohannes Yemane’s modest apartment in downtown Winnipeg is always open.
“In our culture, we welcome anyone who knocks.” Most often, the people knocking are fellow Eritrean refugees who, like Yohannes and his family, are struggling to adapt to an entirely foreign culture in Canada, having fled violence, war and persecution in their own country.
For Yohannes, the journey began when he crossed the border from war-ravaged Eritrea into neighbouring Sudan. But it would be another 20 years before he arrived in Winnipeg, after decades as a refugee and time in prison for his religious beliefs. “I was a minister.”
“I think when Yohannes says he’s experienced a lot of hardships, it’s an understatement,” says Dorota Blumczynska, executive director at the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba (IRCOM)—the United Way agency partner that provided Yohannes and his family with transitional, subsidized housing for their first three years in Winnipeg.
At IRCOM House, Yohannes lived among 300 tenants—90% of whom were also refugees—many he knew from Sudan. Though no longer a minister, Yohannes still felt compelled to reach out.
“He came to every community meeting and translated and helped people understand information, and he was a community leader who got the whole community involved,” says Dorota.
At the same time he was helping, Yohannes was learning. Along with fellow refugees, he learned to navigate an economic system very different from any he’d known with the help of money management training from an asset building partnership between SEED Winnipeg, United Way of Winnipeg, Assiniboine Credit Union and 10 agency partners including IRCOM.
Over the next two years, he studied Community Economic Development and Applied Counselling, but not before learning how to bank, budget and build his credit history. Along the way, he also learned the AssetBuilders partnership would match his savings three-to-one and help him buy an important asset of his choosing. Considering it had to be an asset to others as well, Yohannes chose a couch. And within six months of saving, he made his purchase.
But this story is not really about the couch, says Dorota. It’s about the learning that took place along the way. “It’s the ability to ask questions; the opportunity to say, ‘I don’t understand; why does this work like this? Why do they do things like this here?”
And in the home of a man like Yohannes, it’s also about the community that takes place as a result, says Dorota.
“I have a passion to help newcomers,” says Yohannes. “Because it is really, really hard to integrate and adapt. They struggle. They don’t know where to go and everybody is busy, so they need help.”
“I have a computer and a small printer with a scanner on it, so sometimes I help people send a photocopy or email. Sometimes I go with them to the bank or help fill in government and school forms, or call the cable companies on their behalf. I assist with many spiritual and social aspects of their lives like raising children and parenting in a new culture, or understanding the legal system.”
And most of it starts with a conversation on Yohannes’ couch. “I think when people come from difficult places they have a desire to leave that behind, but that’s not always easy,” says Dorota. “And I think sometimes it’s easier to do it when you find community in other people who are on that journey as well.”
“Yohannes is a messenger of hope... because it’s a fight to get here and it takes the strongest of strong to get here. And then it takes courage to go to school here. And everything is new. And it takes willpower to keep going.”
“Yohannes’ story is testimony to the fact that people can leave hardship behind in many ways and have a new life and that’s what it’s really about.”