Whitehorse United Church began private refugee sponsorship in the 1980s. Today, the dedicated congregation continues to support refugees.
Whitehorse United Church’s first encounter with someone from the Eritrean diaspora came several winters ago when we heard about Berihu B., who had recently arrived in Whitehorse and was renting a room in a house in the new Whistle Bend neighborhood*.
Berihu had found a job downtown and had to take the bus to get there. Unfortunately, this meant trudging through the snow in the dark, frigid Yukon winter in a pair of shoes more appropriate for a Tel Aviv summer (many Eritreans who flee their country go to Israel, where they are able to stay but with no hope of ever getting permanent legal status to live there). We were able to outfit Berihu with a good pair of winter boots to help make his daily commute more tolerable, and things began to grow from there.
Once we got to know Berihu, we learned that he had originally planned to settle in Vancouver, however through an Israeli friend from Tel Aviv he was put in touch with other Israelis living in Whitehorse and he decided to make the Yukon his home. Berihu, who had lived in Israel for many years, was fluent in Hebrew. His new Yukon/Israeli friends invited him for Passover and, as he was the most fluent Hebrew speaker there, it was this Eritrean Orthodox Christian who read from the Torah at the Seder dinner. Some things really do only happen in the North!
At this time Berihu’s wife and children were still in Israel and he wondered whether Whitehorse United Church could sponsor them as refugees. The Church readily agreed to do so, and the process was set in motion. After several COVID-related delays, the rest of the family (mom and two kids) arrived in Whitehorse in September 2021. By the following June a new baby had arrived, making it a family of five.
While waiting for his family to arrive, he asked if the church could also sponsor another family of Eritrean refugees (his childhood friend and his wife’s cousin) who had also been living in Israel for a number of years with no hope of attaining permanent legal status there. We again agreed and sprang to action, and the new family of five arrived in Whitehorse on June 3 of this year. The family is pictured below on the day of their arrival, with Berihu on the far right (please note his appropriate Yukon footwear).
Refugees in Whitehorse face many of the same challenges they do in other Canadian cities, but they also have to deal with issues such as the relative isolation of life in the North and long, dark, and at times harsh winter conditions. The new family is now settling into life in Whitehorse, a process that needless to say has been made so much easier with the help of Berihu and his family.
Given the successes achieved so far and the needs of other Eritrean families living in Israel for permanent settlement opportunities, Whitehorse may and hopefully will welcome more of these families in the future.
*Whistle Bend is a neighborhood located to the west of downtown Whitehorse. The name “Whistle Bend” is derived from the bend in the Yukon River.
— Michael McBride, Robin Fairburn, and Stuart Clark, Whitehorse United Church
The views contained within these blogs are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of The United Church of Canada.