Local volunteer initiative aims to connect people of Winnipeg with refugees

By Sarah Jane Martin

The MIIC logo features a tree with exposed roots, representing the ability of refugee peoples to continue to thrive when transplanted to a new location, but not without a little water, good climate, sunshine, and love. /SARAH MARTIN


The Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council needs volunteer friends for Yazidi refugees living in Winnipeg. The program connects each volunteer with a newly arrived refugee family.

Operation Ezra, a Winnipeg-based grassroots initiative started in 2015, brought hundreds of Yazidi refugees to Manitoba in the last year. The Yazidi people, an ethnoreligious minority in the Middle East, have been targets of persecution for over 700 years.

In 2014, The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — ISIL — a jihadist militant group, killed over 5,000 Yazidi people, and displaced over 50,000 in the Sinjar Massacre. They continue to hold thousands more as hostages. Women are sold as sex slaves, and young boys are trained to become ISIL fighters.

Maysoun Darweesh, 40, the volunteer matching specialist, said the friendship program is beneficial in two ways: it helps refugees learn about Canadian culture, social customs, values, and family dynamics, while volunteers learn about refugee issues, Middle Eastern culture, and history. Darweesh interviews prospective volunteers to try and get an idea of their personality and interests to match them up with a compatible family.

Long term friendship is the goal of the program, and participants are encouraged to take their volunteer family to local events and activities.

“Plus, you get to enjoy some really great food,” said Darweesh.

Bonding over meals is common between volunteers and refugees struggling to communicate in different languages. Paula MacPherson, 64, and her husband Randy, 67, get together at least once per week with their Yazidi family of six, and are often treated to meals like mint salad, homemade labneh cheese, Turkish coffee, and mahshi — hollowed-out peppers and zucchinis stuffed with rice, beef, and spices.

Randy MacPherson, 67, has volunteered with refugees from Russia, Ethiopia, and Argentina, but he has grown particularly close with the young Yazidi couple and their four children, whom he and his wife Paula treat as their own. /SARAH MARTIN

The MacPhersons are coordinating a small cooking class taught by the Yazidi family’s mother so she can practice English, earn pocket money and share her techniques.

“It brought contentment and purpose to my life,” said Paula. “My time, opinions, and love are valued. What a gift that is.”

The MIIC hopes to continue bridging the gap between local and refugee communities, to foster connectedness and cultural acceptance. Those interested in applying are encouraged to fill out an online application at www.miic.ca.