Toronto religious program welcomes neighbours

  • February 21, 2008

TORONTO - Fr. Jon Hansen and David Wangalwa sit patiently in the waiting area of the Immigration and Refugee Board appeal division office in downtown Toronto.

A lady comes out and calls them into assignment court, a meeting to set a date for an immigration hearing.

“I had nobody to come with me here. When I talked to (Hansen), he said he would come with me,” said 34-year-old Wangalwa, a refugee from Mbale, Uganda.

“I’m not here at the hearing in any official capacity,” said Hansen. “I want to be there more for him as a support. I think he really appreciates having someone with him.”

Their relationship is part of a larger project called Becoming Neighbours Joint Apostolic Ministry, a program that matches a newcomer with a religious sister, brother or priest in the archdiocese of Toronto who acts as a mentor and friend for one to two years during the newcomer’s initial adjustment to Canada.

It began in 2003 when religious congregations of men and women started meeting at the suggestion of Sr. Margaret Myatt, superior general of the Sisters of St. Joseph. She envisioned a common project for religious in the archdiocese of Toronto that would also increase their visibility in the community, said Hansen.

After some discussion it was decided that refugees and immigrants as well as youth would be the focus.

“At the very basic heart of the (program) is that Jesus called us to look after those who were without home,” said Hansen. “The widows, the orphans and the refugees are the three groups that Jesus keeps calling us back to.”

Today 19 religious congregations help newcomers fit into the Canadian cultural milieu.

Companions go through an initial orientation and receive ongoing support, training and participate in a monthly theological reflection circle.  

Hansen runs a circle of half a dozen people at St. Patrick’s parish in downtown Toronto.

“We talk about our experience in the light of our traditions,” said Hansen. “There are some Protestants involved. It’s spreading out.

“It was a good ministry to go with because it’s so basic, and there can be no debate about the value of it, and everyone can get on board and be a part of that.”

Toronto settlement agencies refer newcomers to the program and they are matched up based on each other’s preferences.

Hansen and Wangalwa signed an agreement to meet on a regular basis and “It’s evolved into a friendship,” said Hansen.

At first they met every other week, now it’s a bi-monthly phone call and a monthly meeting. They socialize by going for coffee, taking walks and celebrating Wangalwa’s birthday. On Canada Day they went up the CN Tower.

They started meeting a year-and-a-half ago after Wangalwa faked coming to Canada for the International AIDS conference in August. In reality he was fleeing persecution in Uganda from the Internal Security Organization agents. They wanted to stop Wangalwa from mobilizing support for the Forum for Democratic Change, which opposes the ruling National Resistance Movement.

The ISO took Wangalwa away from his home, blindfolded him and brought him to an unknown location.

“They started beating me, harassing me, asking me questions,” said Wangalwa. “They forced me to change to their side. I resisted. They said if I didn’t change they would kill me.”

Eventually, he surrendered and they let him go. But he did not accept the movement, so for fear of his life he hid and later escaped to Canada, leaving behind his wife and four children between the ages of three and 12.

“In some ways you realize how difficult it must be for one to come to a strange culture and make your way through the system,” said Hansen. “When David tells me his struggles I don’t know where to start.”

“I love him so much,” said Wangalwa about Hansen. “I don’t know what I would do without him. He helps me so much. If I have a problem he’s the first person I call.”

“It’s so polarizing in the news how some people are rallying to keep immigrants and refugees out,” said Hansen. “From the Christian point of view we do what we can to help those who are in exile from their homeland.”

Wangalwa said Hansen has helped him out with food, clothes and rent money during hard times.

“I give him all the credit for what he’s done for himself,” Hansen said.

Today, Wangalwa works as a cleaner for George Brown College. He hopes to eventually get Canadian citizenship and bring his family over.

The hardest adjustment to life in Canada is living alone, he said.

“I miss my people, my children, I sleep alone.”

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