Several southern Manitoba communities have welcomed Afghan refugees in recent weeks and months. 

Emery Plett is the Executive Director of the Evangelical Mennonite Conference (EMC), which has its head office in Steinbach. Plett says EMC is partnering with several organizations overseas, but primarily, they are working with the Canadian government to bring Afghan Christian refugees into our country.

Following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 2021, Canada Immigration started the Operation Afghan Safety or OAS Program, with a commitment that 40,000 vulnerable Afghans would be welcomed into our country. 

Plett says for some of the refugees, not only were they forced to flee their home country that was in turmoil, but as Christian believers, they cannot safely return to Afghanistan. As a result, EMC has been actively bringing some of these refugees into Canada.

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"I think it's our duty as people with resources to help those that don't have as much," says Plett. "Really important for us to participate with our fellow Christian brothers and sisters around the world and bring them to a safe place."

Plett says fifteen churches within their conference are part of this initiative. Those churches include Blumenort, Heartland (Landmark), Steinbach EMC, Rosenort EMC, Morweena, Evangelical Fellowship Church (Steinbach), Stony Brook (Steinbach), Ridgewood, Island Gospel (BC), Abbeydale (Calgary), Leamington (Ontario), Fort Garry, Coaldale (Alberta), Staffordville (Ontario) and Fort Frances (Ontario). 

Arley Loewen with a refugee familyArley Loewen with a refugee family (submitted photo)

Arley Loewen with a refugee family (submitted photo)

He notes that, to date, 11 families have already arrived in Canada through the EMC sponsorship.

"We are waiting for a few more families as well," he says. "So, we are pretty excited about what's going on and as we do that and work with these people as they come across to Canada."

Plett explains that this program works because the sponsoring church is committed to supporting their family for the first year. This includes covering their housing costs and helping them get started. He notes the whole point is that the family will have financial backing as they try to find employment and get established. The hope, then, is for the family to work towards independence. 

Plett, who is part of Stony Brook Fellowship in Steinbach, says they are partnering with three other churches to sponsor two families. He explains that for their family of three, they needed to have between $35,000 and $40,000 in place. Plett notes their family of four would have required roughly the same amount. However, he says they have a family of nine that will be arriving in 2024, which will require closer to $60,000. 

"Basically, it's the idea of a year of rent, utilities and supporting them in terms of, I think, some groceries and stuff," he says. "There's a budget, it's not limitless."

The local church ensures those funds are in place, which can be done through fundraising or donations. On top of that, Plett explains that the Evangelical Mennonite Conference is also contributing $5,000 of support per family.

"That is something that our conference has stepped up to make sure that churches have at least good seed money to start," adds Plett. 

He says one of their families has some significant healthcare concerns that they are assisting with. Plett notes that official refugees coming into Canada are covered by provincial health care plans. 

Janice Loewen at a welcome event for Afghan familiesJanice Loewen at a welcome event for Afghan families (Photo credit: Arley Loewen)

Janice Loewen at a welcome event for Afghan families (Photo credit: Arley Loewen)

The Afghans coming to Manitoba are arriving from places like Pakistan, Indonesia, Turkey, Abu Dhabi, Tajikistan and Greece, where they lived in refugee camps. But Plett is quick to point out that a refugee camp is not always as bleak as it may sound. He notes these are not always big tent cities, and some of their families may have been living in apartments or other facilities. 

Plett notes there is definitely a language barrier. He says some Afghans come with English, though many are now taking English classes. He says Stony Brook has been working closely with Arley and Janice Loewen of Blumenort, who were missionaries in Afghanistan for nearly 40 years and have been assisting, including helping with translation. Plett says that generally, children speak better English than their parents. 

"The miracle of this is how the work in Afghanistan was very hard and very slow but now the Afghans are coming to their doorstep," Plett explains, referring to Arley and Janice Loewen. "It's just an interesting switch because they are coming to Canada, and they are able to minister to them right here in Canada as opposed to having to go overseas. It's a strange turn of affairs."

Plett says it is quite a culture shock for these families. First of all, many of them are now experiencing cold and snowy conditions for the first time. Also, he points out that the refugees refer to Winnipeg as a small village compared to the densely populated areas where they came from. 

But, Plett says it is very exciting for the EMC churches to welcome these families. 

"There's the excitement of them finding a place that's safe, a place where they can actually be and not worry about what's happening around them in terms of violence and safety," he explains. "We are really excited that our churches, and particularly for myself with Stony Brook, that we've taken on this challenge of wanting to support and bring a family over and help them find their way through our Canadian culture and establish themselves."

According to Plett, assisting refugees is nothing new to EMC. He says that back in the 1980s, several EMC churches helped bring over refugees from Vietnam, and then a few years ago, they sponsored refugees from Africa. 

An Afghan refugee family on a Canadian farm (Arley Loewen)An Afghan family on a Canadian farm (Photo credit: Arley Loewen)

An Afghan family on a Canadian farm (Photo credit: Arley Loewen)