Ethiopian Church Pastor Seeks to Sponsor Refugees from the Horn of Africa

·4 min read

Pastor Dereje Haileyesus is watching the situation unfold in his native Ethiopia with concern. Tens of thousands of refugees have fled conflict in the country to search for safety in neighbouring countries. Haileyesus would like to help these, and all, people fleeing conflict but is unable to do so. Despite his church, the Ethiopian Evangelical Church in Ottawa, being a Sponsorship Agreement Holder, he is unable to help.

“Personally, I’m very very sad about the situation,” Haileyesus told NCM. “Canada values all lives, even dogs and pets. But human beings [around the world] are dying.”

Haileyesus, who himself fled to Sudan in the 90s, started sponsoring refugees in 1998. He became a Sponsorship Agreement Holder in 2015. He tried to help refugees, regardless of ethnic background or regional loyalties through his organization as well as in partnership with other organizations as best he could, but he found the process too difficult due to financial constraints and the slow pace of approvals. “The process time is very long. You submit the application, after three or four years the [refugees] are coming [to Canada],” the pastor told NCM. “As a church, we can’t afford help… For example for one person, the government asks around $12,000 for one year commitment for the shelter and other things. When we sponsor 10 people, that means $120,000.”

He implored the federal government to find ways to ease the financial burden by sharing half the cost between the government and the sponsorship holder. He also wants the government to increase quotas so that his church can help more people with a lightened monetary cost.

NCM reached out to the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada for comment. None was provided by deadline.

Tensions between the Ethiopian central government in Addis Ababa and the regional government in Tigray have boiled over into open conflict. One that could suck in other countries in the region like Eritrea, who fought a bloody conflict with Ethiopia between 1998 and 2000.

The country is divided into 10 semi-autonomous regions roughly divided along ethnic lines. Tigray, the northernmost region which borders Eritrea, is home to the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). This party ran the national politics through a coalition for close to three decades despite the Tigrayan people only being 6 percent of the population. The current Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, froze out the TPLF when he came to power in 2018. He also brokered a peace with Eritrea, earning him a Nobel Peace Prize. Last March, Ahmed postponed the country’s national elections citing COVID-19. The TPLF in their home region went ahead with their election anyway. Ahmed refused to recognize the legitimacy of that election and the TPLF responded by not recognizing Ahmed’s premiership. The government troops were sent into Tigray, who clashed with TPLF militias.

“We call upon the people of Mekelle (regional capital of Tigray) to play a key role in bringing this treasonous group to justice by standing in solidarity with the national defence force in this law enforcement action,” read a Nov. 22 statement by PM Ahmed. “We’re inflicting heavy defeats on all fronts against the forces that came to attack us,” said TPLF Chairman Debretsion Gebremichael on Nov. 18. “I call upon all the Tigrayan people to go out en masse to drive out the invaders.”

With civil war on the lips of world media and Ethiopians, a refugee crisis has broken out. It was reported on Nov. 21 that over 30,000 refugees from the Tigray region have crossed into neighbouring Sudan. As of the end of 2019, there were 95,000 Ethiopians who have had to flee their country for various reasons. Since 2013, the earliest available data, 2,201 Ethiopians have claimed refugees status with Canada. That number peaked in 2019 with 456 claimants. Between January and June of this year, 241 people have made the claim.

Currently, all Haileyesus and his flock can do is pray. Inspired by the biblical Prophet Daniel, his church has been holding 21 days of prayer from Nov. 1 to Nov. 21 for the past seven years. Those prayers have included refugees of all nations, general peace around the world, the Canadian people and government etc.

“A person can be given refugee protection in Canada if they meet the United Nations (UN) definition of a Convention refugee, or if they are a person in need of protection,” Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) of Canada told NCM.

Refugees are defined by the United Nations as some with “a well-founded fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.” More up to date definitions can include sexual orientation, gender identity and women fleeing domestic violence. “A claim for refugee protection can be made by speaking to an officer from the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) at any port of entry upon arrival in Canada, or to an officer from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada or CBSA at an inland office,” the IRB also said.

Mansoor Tanweer, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, New Canadian Media