New Canadians Melvin Desk Mall and his wife Nusrat arrived in Canada with their three children Azim Chand (back left), Madiha Sana (back centre) and Zain Sunny (back right) on Dec. 4, 2019. With the help of the Agassiz Refugee Sponsorship Committee, the family says they are adapting well to life in Agassiz. They are pictured outside their Agassiz home on Dec. 27, 2019. (Karissa Gall/The Observer)

‘We feel like we are home’: Newcomer families adapting well in Agassiz

Two newcomer familes are settling in after arriving in Agassiz in 2019

After recovering from a serious disease in his birth country, Pakistan, Melvin Desk Mall says he felt called to leave his nursing job and become a pastor. Soon after, he would have to leave more than his job — he and his family would be forced to leave their entire lives behind.

Ultimately accused of being a “prophet abuser” in the Muslim-majority nation, Melvin told the Observer he was accosted while motorcycling home one day in 2005 and badly beaten. His three children with wife Nusrat — Zain Sunny, Madiha Sana and Azim Chand — stopped going to school out of fear. Then, he said a group of people came to their home offering money and safety in return for conversion to Islam. But Melvin couldn’t accept.

“How can somebody just offer me money and ask me to change my religion?” he said.

Later that night a Muslim friend of Melvin came to warn him what was going to happen next.

“My childhood friend said, ‘Please take your children and go right away because tomorrow they’re coming … and I won’t be able to help you,’” Melvin said, adding that he knew his life was in danger. “We didn’t have any plan. Suddenly, it happened and I had to face the situation.”

SEE ALSO: Local group looks to help refugees

The family moved from town to town in Pakistan until they reached Karachi, on the coast of the Arabian Sea. From there, they went to Sri Lanka in 2006, then Singapore, then were marooned in Malaysia without documentation for about seven years. Melvin wrote to churches around the world asking for help, but no one replied. Finally, after being displaced for more than a decade, the Agassiz Group of Churches Refugee Sponsorship Committee, through the long-standing Mennonite Central Committee refugee sponsorship program, responded and told them to submit a UN Refugee Agency application immediately.

They applied in 2017 and two years later, on Dec. 4, 2019, they arrived at the Vancouver International Airport.

Committee co-chairs John and Jacquie Zuidhof were there to meet them, Melvin said.

“John and Jacquie didn’t say, ‘Welcome to Canada,’ they said, ‘Welcome home.’”

Agassiz Group of Churches Refugee Sponsorship Committee members meet the Mall family at YVR airport on Dec. 4, 2019. (Jacquie Zuidhof/Contributed)

It wasn’t an easy process though, the Malls and Zuidhofs agreed.

Since the committee wanted to sponsor a specific family — the Malls — they had to go through the private sponsorship process, which takes longer compared to the government-assisted refugee (GAR) process.

In fact, the committee started the GAR process with Gilbert Ndikumana and his family in July, and they arrived before the Malls, on Oct. 10, 2019.

Through the GAR program, private sponsors choose from a list of refugees who have already been approved to come to Canada, which shortens the process for the sponsor.

From left: New Canadians Gilbert Ndikumana and his wife Amina Kizungu are pictured in their Agassiz apartment on Dec. 27, 2019 with four children Josephine (13), Blessing (5), Juma (16) and Julie (31). (Karissa Gall/The Observer)

Gilbert told the Observer he originally fled his home country of Burundi due to war. Along with his children and wife Amina Kizungu, who is originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gilbert was then displaced in South Africa for more than 16 years. There, he met more violence.

“It’s bad,” Gilbert said of xenophobia and violence against foreign-born Africans in South Africa.

In 2008 he said he was stabbed with a knife.

“People were coming to attack, telling us we must leave, it’s not our country,” he said. “They said foreigners, when we go there we take their jobs.”

His eldest daughter Julie, 31, agreed.

“If they see that you’re progressing, it’s like a jealous thing that evolves and you become like an enemy to them, so they will do anything, anything, even kill,” Julie added. “At any given time your life is at risk, so you’re just not comfortable living there anymore.”

In 2016, they applied to the UN Refugee Agency for protection and finally found comfort in Agassiz a few months ago.

Jacquie Zuidhof (centre left) on an excursion to the Robson Square Ice Rink in Vancouver with Gilbert Ndikumana and his family. (Jacquie Zuidhof/Contributed)

The younger children were able to start school soon after arrival and are already caught up to their classmates. Middle daughter Josephine, 13, has also taken up the clarinet in school band. Gilbert — a plumber by trade — and Julie are hoping to find work, with Julie aiming to save money and continue unfinished nursing school studies.

The Malls are also looking for work and into UFV courses, in addition to doing paperwork for permanent residency with the help of committee members, going to church and spending time with local families, who invite them for dinner and visiting.

“It’s a beautiful thing, what we’ve felt here,” Zain Sunny said of Agassiz. “People are very pure-hearted here and very generous, the way they showed us love.

“The community here has been very helpful to gain back what we lost … we feel like we are home.”

RELATED: Long road for Syrian family in Chilliwack

The Zuidhofs said their committee will continue to support both families socially as well as with monthly costs for basic necessities, including housing, food and public transportation, for a year after their arrival.

“The goal is for them to be independent in 12 months,” John said, adding they may start the process with another family in the future. “My feeling is we will wait for at least a year now before we decide where to go from here.”

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