It was early in the new millennium when Jean Pierre (J.P.) Venegas realized it was no longer safe for him in his home country of Chile.
As a lawyer working with human rights complaints against the country’s national airline, Mr. Venegas had inadvertently crossed the government. At the time, the country was under military dictatorship and by challenging the government with legitimate human rights complaints, Mr. Venegas was labeled a Communist.
“If you were not with the government you were immediately tagged as a Communist. When I tried to fix that situation was when I discovered it was no longer safe for me. So I decided to leave,” he says.
In an effort to ease his situation, Mr. Venegas took a job with Delta Airlines and was living temporarily in the United States. With the collapse of the airline industry following the September 11 attacks, Mr. Venegas was out of work and stuck in the U.S. because he was afraid to return to Chile; he started to look for a country to immigrate to.
He eventually received notice he could travel to Emerson, MB for a Jan. 2 interview with Canadian Border Services.
“I thought, ‘Where in the name of God is Emerson, MB? There was No GPS at the time, so you had to grab a big map and try to find out where it is,” he says.
He drove three days from his home in Fort Lauderdale, FL.
“My vehicle was a Florida vehicle, so it had very good air conditioning but the heat was not good. So it’s me driving with two jackets and a blanket, and scraping the windows inside, for three days.”
Arriving at the border, he was questioned for six hours before Border Services allowed him to enter Canada as a refugee claimant. He did not initially know where to go, and was told Winnipeg was just an hour or so away.
When Mr. Venegas had worked for the Chilean national airline he had flown with Chilean athletes to the 1999 Pam Am Games in Winnipeg.
“It was so green and it was so nice [then] and it was so beautiful from the skies when you are flying overhead. And I said, ‘Oh, Winnipeg, yes I know that city, I’m going to go there!’ And I start driving. I start looking at white everywhere. No green. No lakes. No geese… only white.”
Once in Winnipeg, he received help from Welcome Place.
Welcome Place’s In Canada Protection Program is for refugee claimants like Mr. Venegas. The program helps refugee claimants find shelter, food and appropriate clothing, facilitates access to health and translation services, as well as aids refugees as they file their board claim.
There are generally between 50 and 60 refugee claimants annually, says Rita Chahal, Executive Director of Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council, which is affectionately referred to as Welcome Place. By March of this year, 160 refugee claimants had already been involved with the organization.
Due to changes in its funding structure in 2012, Welcome Place received no government funding to run programs for refugee claimants or family-sponsored refugees. Despite this, it continued to offer programming at a deficit.
The Winnipeg Foundation is supporting the In-Canada Refugee Protection Program with grants totaling $90,000 over two years, with additional matching grants of up to $60,000 over two years for every dollar Welcome Place is able to raise. The grants will be drawn from The Foundation’s Community Building Fund.
“Anyone that walks through our door, and is looking for protection, is able to get the assistance they need from us,” Ms. Chahal says.
Mr. Venegas received his Canadian Citizenship five years ago. Today, he works at Welcome Place as a Building Manager, and he loves his work – especially showing new refugees how wonderful it is to live in Winnipeg.
“There are many issues; with the new flavours in food, with the city, the weather but you just need to take the time, one or two minutes, to sit down [with the refugees], to show them you are a former refugee, and they understand and they can see that this is working.”
He, his wife and their 10-year-old son are proud to call Winnipeg home – and they’re helping other refugees feel the same.
“I love the city and I love the province. I love Canada.”
Hear J.P. Venegas talk about his experience as a refugee claimant on rivercity360.org.