Sr. Helen Petrimoulx, centre, with the organizing committee of the Community Refugee Fund’s 10th anniversary dinner in Windsor. Photo by Ron Stang

Sisters are a driving force for fund to aid new refugees to Canada

By  Ron Stang, Catholic Register Special
  • October 30, 2017
WINDSOR, Ont. – She may have “retired” five years ago, but Sr. Helen Petrimoulx has never backed away from her commitment to refugees seeking a new life in Canada.

Petrimoulx, who for decades worked as a “refugee specialist” for the Diocese of London, spearheads the fundraising for the Community Refugee Fund, which she launched in 1999 with the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary.

The Fund held its 10th annual fundraising dinner on Oct. 19, attracting more than 300 people from around the Windsor-Essex area that borders the U.S. Proceeds from the dinner also support the Angela Rose transition house for refugees requiring short-term stays. The eventual goal is to create a foundation to generate sufficient interest to pay for refugees’ “critical basic needs,” Petrimoulx says.

Windsor, located next to Detroit and the fourth most ethnically diverse city in Canada, has long been a magnet for refugees and is currently seeing a larger influx coming from across the border due to U.S. government changes in refugee policy that has left many wondering if they will be deported to their home countries.

“I think Windsor has always been very attuned to refugees,” says Marion Overholt, executive director of Legal Assistance of Windsor, a non-profit legal aid clinic, who has worked with Petrimoulx. “But I think Sr. Helen has played a pivotal role and I know that, as a person of faith, she has offered that love and caring and financial assistance to refugees when other people just were oblivious and didn’t care.”

The fund fills a critical niche because there are no government programs to pay for the initial, and sometimes dire, needs of refugees.

Hugo Vega, general manager of settlement integration and newcomer services for the YMCA of Western Ontario, says the federal government funds immigration programs “for permanent residents” but not for refugees.

“There is very little to no funding for that population,” he said. “So what Sr. Helen is doing with her life’s work and with the organization is to try to meet that need.”

Petrimoulx’s work with refugees has been recognized with several awards, including an honorary doctorate from the the University of Windsor and the Order of Ontario.

Petrimoulx, who took the lead on fundraising after retiring from her diocesan job in 2012, said there is a “lot of misunderstanding” about refugee support and why the fund exists.

The public, she says, often think this is duplication of existing government programs. “I need to explain that there are no services” for refugees who just end up at Canada’s doorstep, she said.

These are people who often arrive with “just the clothes on their back,” Petrimoulx says.

True, the arrivals can receive social assistance while awaiting a refugee claimant hearing, but that funding doesn’t kick in right away. And, Petrimoulx says, even social assistance can be “skimpy,” so the fund covers interim costs like clothing and used furniture for their households as well as daily needs like medicine and transit passes.

Once a refugee is approved as a “convention refugee” (the definition is those who have a well-founded fear of persecution in their home country) and are allowed to stay in the country permanently, they can apply to bring their family to Canada. But the process can take years and cost a lot of money.

One recent case involved a refugee mother trying to reunite her family. The bill for things such as applications and legal fees, police certificates, interpreters, airline tickets and DNA testing was $40,000, of which $10,000 was covered by the fund.

Petrimoulx said many of the refugees who end up in Windsor are from countries in Africa like Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo.

However, Windsor has also been attracting refugees who originally landed in Toronto and Montreal, but are looking for a smaller city with a less intimidating atmosphere.

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