If you think adjusting to the deep freeze of winter presently clutching the Cariboo is a challenge, imagine being one of two households of Liberian women and children that have been settling into a new life in Williams Lake.
Originally from Liberia, the families fled to the Ivory Coast more than a decade ago, but to separate areas of the country.
It was not until they arrived in the lakecity that the two families met each other.
One household is sponsored by the Williams Lake Refugee Sponsorship Group (WLRSG) and the other household by Sacred Heart Catholic Church.
The WLRSG sponsored family is made up of Helena Dickson and her adult daughter Maway and her daughter Patience, 14, — as well as Maway’s two daughters Faith, 12, and Regala, who is one and half years old.
Sacred Heart’s family consists of Assata Cisse, her daughter Assata Koneh and her two daughters — seven-year-old Aicha and three-year-old Charlotte and Assata Cisse’s niece Fanta, 14.
During separate interviews with the families at their apartment homes the women expressed anxieties about the fact they have arrived in Canada with a debt.
All of them will have to pay back the Canadian government for their flights, which amounts to about $2,000 for each person, and for medical exams they had before they left Ivory Coast to be admissible into Canada.
They can take a longer time to pay off the debts, but then their loans start to accrue interest.
Groups such as the Canadian Council for Refugees have called on the governments of Canada and Quebec to absorb the transportation expenses, but so far only some Syrian refugees have been given reprieve.
In light of the difficulties already faced by new immigrants to Canada in adapting to a new language, culture and economy, advocates for refugees across the country have said added financial burden placed on new Canadians by the immigrant loan program severely undermines the credibility of the program, as well as Canada’s commitment to the well-being of refugees generally.
Despite the debt hanging over their heads and the expected struggles of adapting to a foreign land, the four women said one of the highlights about coming to Canada has been the opportunity for them all to go to school.
Soon after they arrived in the lakecity, they began taking English language classes at the Immigrant and Mulitcultural Services Society (IMSS) Monday to Thursday mornings.
Teenagers Patience, Faith and Fanta are enrolled at Lake City Secondary School’s Columneetza campus and seven-year-old Aicha attends Marie Sharpe Elementary School. Preschoolers Regala and Charlotte play in the mornings at IMSS with other children whose parents are studying English too.
Helena Dickson’s family
On a recent Friday afternoon, Helena Dickson was busy making a spicy soup in the kitchen at their apartment. Maway was snuggled up on the couch and said she is finding it an adjustment because it is so cold.
The walls of their apartment are host to several bright paintings donated by local artists. Regala was busy playing with toys, stopping intermittently to eat her lunch of chicken and a boiled potato.
Liberia is an English speaking country, but Ivory Coast is French speaking. As a result, Helena speaks English and Maway said she learned English when she attended school in Ivory Coast. It is, however, the first time Helena has ever gone to school in her life.
Helena’s family are Christians and have been attending the Cariboo Community Church which meets at the Seventh Day Adventist Church on Woodland Drive. She agreed that it will be easier when the church moves into its permanent space in the old Field’s store on Oliver Street because their apartment is not that far from downtown.
Suddenly there was a knock at the door and Helena called out asking who was there? With a burst of excitement, Patience and Faith came into the apartment, having arrived home from school.
The teens quickly ate a snack and then went out with local resident Harry Jennings who was helping them with a newspaper carrier route in their neighbourhood.
Assata Cisse’s family
Assata Cisse, like Helena, is going to school for the first time in her life and said it is important to know book learning.
“I am going very slowly,” she said of her progress at school. “My steps are small but I am trying my best.”
Her daughter Assata Koneh said she attended school in Ivory Coast for a while because it was free at the permanent refugee camp.
“I stopped going when it was no longer free,” she said. After arriving in Williams Lake they learned that other Liberians have come to cities in Ontario, Alberta, B.C. and Manitoba.
It is hoped they will have a visit from a Liberian family that is living in Kamloops soon, they said.
“We are only two Liberian families here in Williams Lake,” Assata Cisse added. “We all pray to God that more will come here.”
Their family is Muslim, but as there is no mosque in Williams Lake, they pray at home.
When she arrived home from school, Fanta said wants to try wrestling and basketball through school.
Their family will celebrate Christmas this year, the women said, noting they did in Africa. They hope to have a Christmas tree for the first time because in Canada they are free to celebrate as they wish, Assata Cisse said.
“Just like the day we learned we were coming to Canada,” Assata Koneh said. “We danced together because we were so happy.”
When asked about the snow, Assata Cisse said it is good.
“Let it fall down on me,” she added with a big grin.
Here are a few more photographs taken during the Tribune’s visits with the two families.