Welcome House, the first refugee reception centre in B.C., and third in Canada, is closing its doors as the Immigrant Services Society of British Columbia shifts its operations to a larger space in East Vancouver.
After housing refugees for three decades, dozens of former residents of 530 Drake Street came together Tuesday evening at Welcome House to say goodbye to their first home in Canada.
According to ISS of B.C., the building has received and resettled over 25,000 government sponsored refugees from areas of conflict such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Chile, Guatemala, Kurdish Iraq, former Yugoslavia, Kosovo, Ethiopia, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Myanmar.
Director of Settlement Services for ISS of B.C., Chris Friesen, says while the new refugee reception centre will provide more services for future refugees, Welcome House has been a significant part of the past.
"When you look out over the past thirty years, and you look at the the various world crises in the various parts of the world … it's reflected in those that enter this building from the airport, those that had their opportunity to rebuild their lives in this country as future Canadians got their start within these four walls."
"This place was very beautiful to me"
Michel Uwimana, a refugee of the Democratic Republic of Congo, just left Welcome House in February of this year with his wife and one-year-old son.
They are now settled in Surrey, but just a few months ago Welcome House provided Uwimana's family with their first apartment in Canada, and even showed them how to use a stove.
"This place was very beautiful to me, I wanted not even to move out of this place, because I could visit a staff member of ISS of BC where I could get all of my information," said Uwimana.
"It hurt me when I heard that they are trying to close this building, you know, even other people could reach here and it could be part of their history. And it's something very good to come back, I wish I could stay here for all my time, my entire time to be here in Canada."
"They welcomed us"
Nena Momcilovic, a refugee from the former Yugoslavia, arrived in the year 2000 on Valentine's day with her two children.
After spending five of the worst years of her life in a Bulgarian refugee camp, she says she was so excited to come to Canada.
"They welcomed us with the toys for kids, with cash, with a nice apartment, with clean linen … Like oh my god, like it's Canada, and we're here, I don't have words to explain," said Momcilovic.
"We were so lucky, reason why we came is not something to remember because it was war, but when we came here everything started to be perfect. You know, and we are so happy here, and I wouldn't go back."
Momcilovic is now a nurse, her daughter is a physiotherapist and her son is finishing medical school.
New building at capacity
Friesen says the new building at 2610 Victoria Drive is setup to bring more services together under one roof — including employment, settlement, mental health programs, banking services, and an on-site medical facility, among other services.
It will also support six more units than the 12 at Welcome House, and has a sleeping capacity of 138 — nearly double what the old building could handle.
He says the new facility is already at capacity, citing more refugee claimants who have been crossing the Peace Arch border from the United States.
Friesen estimates almost 80 per cent of the 1200 primarily Syrian, Iraqi, Iranian, Somali, Congolese, and Eritrean people who have come in to ISS of B.C. facilities since April 2016 have walked across the border or arrived at YVR and declared asylum.