ANNAPOLIS ROYAL, N.S. - It’s hot in Ghana, so when Anna Amegah saw the recent snow in Annapolis Royal, she was in awe.
“I was amazed. The first day I went out there and I was like ‘Wow!’ I call it amazing because we don’t have snow falling in Africa,” she said from her new home on the town’s waterfront. “I’ve been blessed to be in a place where snow is falling. Very happy.”
And she likes her new home tucked between a museum and a bed-and-breakfast in Canada’s oldest town. It’s been a long time coming for the mother of four who fled Liberia years ago to live as a refugee in nearby Ghana.
She will never go back to Liberia where civil wars killed as many as 250,000 people until a peace agreement in 2003 led to democratic elections in 2005. The country was known for its child soldiers and the displacement of as many as one million people. She was one of them.
Asked how long she’d been waiting to come to Canada, she said too long.
“I waited. It was about two years after my interview with the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees),” she said. “I was successful. The Canadian government accepted my request. It elated me but I kept waiting. It was two years.”
When she found out recently she would be going to Canada, she cried.
New home in Canada
Ashley Sprague sat with Anna and her kids on a recent snowy morning. It was white and windy outside. School was cancelled again, much to the dismay of 12-year-old Wendy and six-year-old Kelvin who were eager to start classes and meet new friends. They had toured the school but snow had kept the doors closed ever since.
Three-year-old Philemon was all smiles trying out the reporter’s camera, and 10-month-old Elsa was sleeping in a crib nearby.
“A lot happened in between,” Sprague said in reference to Anna’s UNHCR interview and her arrival in Canada.
The group Sprague belongs to, Annapolis Royal Community Assisting Relocation, sponsored the Haggar family from Sudan two-and-a-half years ago – a mom with six kids.
“They have done really well in our community,” Sprague said. “The community really supports having them here and the kids are doing fantastic, and they’ve learned English, and we were so happy with how that had gone.”
What the Haggars brought to the community was so positive, doing it again was soon a topic of discussion.
They met in March of this year and a whole new committee went to work.
“We started with raising money. We started with a lot of different fundraising events. Then we also needed to find a home and that was a real challenge here, there was not a lot to rent,” Sprague said.
But they did find a house, and once they had enough money, they could really start looking at what families were available.
“When that happened, one of the first families that came up was a mom from Africa with four children,” Sprague said. “Our co-sponsor is the United Church here, the St. George and St. Andrew Church, so I went to the church and said, ‘I think we have a family, we have enough money, we have a house.”
The congregation had to vote on it.
“So I said, ‘here’s what we know: we know her name is Anna, we know she has four kids, we know she was born in Liberia but has been living in Ghana for a long time. We don’t know much else, so what does the church think?’”
What happened next had Sprague close to tears.
“Every hand in that church went right up and said, ‘yes, we want to support this family,’” Sprague remembers. “We were so happy, and then we could say ‘yes’ and then things happened very, very quickly.”
They were told it could be six weeks before Anna and her family arrived. Maybe longer.
“So we said, ‘let’s start getting some donations. We’ll start getting some clothes. We’ll start getting the house ready,’” She said. “Then we got the call saying no, actually they’re coming on Nov. 15, so I think that was about three weeks, less than three weeks from when we said yes.”
ARCARE gets ready
The ARCARE team kicked into action.
“This house was empty. We had an entire house furnished, every wall painted, we had clothing for all the kids, we got a grocery load, we got everything we could,” Sprague said. “We got ready as quickly as we could to bring them here.”
They met the family at the airport Nov. 15.
“It was really wonderful because Fiaza Haggar (the mother of the original refugee family) came with us to the airport to meet them, along with her boy Ahmed in Grade 10,” Sprague said, adding Haggar’s daughter made cookies for them. “It was wonderful. We had about eight people come to the airport and we were so nervous and so excited to find out who they would be. We found Anna. We found her beautiful children and we were able to bring them home.”
Anna cried as Sprague talked.
“It makes me cry too,” Sprague said.
“We’ve heard a little bit about what it was like there, but definitely a lot of really challenging times for you there,” Sprague said to her new friend. “She knows she will never go back to Liberia. But maybe someday we can go visit Ghana. She knows it’s not safe for her there (Liberia).”
The Amegah family was able to come to Canada under the blended visa sponsorship program with ARCARE splitting the costs of living with the federal government for the first year. ARCARE will repay travel costs to the government.
Anna hopes to find work soon and is open to any type of job, although she has experience in hair dressing and loves working with older people.
“We’ll start some employment training as soon as possible,” Sprague said.
In the meantime, there was supposed to be a turkey dinner that evening. Sprague and the Amegah family was planning to go.
Annapolis Royal’s Mayor Bill MacDonald lauded the group that has brought two refugee families to the town.
“We’ve had such a fabulous experience with our first refugee family, and it’s remarkably wonderful the community has gotten together again to invite a second refugee family to the town,” MacDonald said. “It’s amazing in a community of just 500 people that we’re able to attract enough interest from everybody in the area to come together to do something like this.”
He said the whole community helped.
“People donated furniture, myself and my wife have, others have. Houses have been arranged,” he said. “It’s really, truly a remarkable exercise in community spirit for the best of intentions – that is to rescue people from circumstances that are tragic and desperate. There can be no greater motivation for people to act than in those circumstances.”
Did you know?
When Ashley Sprague’s son Caleb was five years old he held a hot chocolate and skating fundraiser for Annapolis Royal’s first refugee family, raising more than $600. On Nov. 15 of this year he was among those at the airport greeting the community’s second refugee family.