Gebrezghi Berhane is celebrating his one-year anniversary in Fernie, but unlike most residents who move to Fernie for the exquisite scenery, Berhane came to Fernie after facing religious persecution in his home country.
The 39-year-old refugee spent seven months in a shipping container prison cell in Eritrea, Africa before fleeing to Ethiopia and then finally, after spending three years as a refugee in Ethiopia, receiving refuge in Fernie.
“The reason I left my home country was religious persecution,” Berhane said. “They used shipping containers as prison cells. They try to punish you by depriving you of your basic rights.”
The Fernie Friends of Refugees program sponsored the self-proclaimed Christian, and during the first seven to eight months he was getting settled in Canada, he lived with Garth and Debbie Gould-Hawke, members of the Mountainside Community Church.
“This family is just like my natural family for me,” said Berhane. “They helped me in every way.”
The Gould-Hawke family was familiarized with Berhane’s situation through their daughter and founder of the Fernie Friends of Refugees program Brittany Loberg.
Loberg established Fernie Friends of Refugees through the East Kootenay Friend of Burma charity in Cranbrook. While trying to get the Fernie refugee organization up and running, Cranbrook enlisted their help.
“The branch in Cranbrook called us and told us that they had this couple and if somebody didn’t take them, it was just going to be a huge disaster,” Gould-Hawke said, adding that a family in Edmonton changed their minds about sponsoring both Berhane and his sister Selam last minute.
Despite not feeling as though her and her husband were ready to sponsor two refugees, Gould-Hawke decided to open up their house to Berhane and his sister.
“It’s just been an awesome experience for us,” she said. “We learned about their food and their culture and it was just so much fun to see them learning things about our culture.”
Gould-Hawke joked that it was fun to see Berhane and Selam learning about simple things like using a dishwasher and grocery shopping.
“Just their presence in our family added such a rich dimension [to our lives], to my children even, just to see the appreciation, it’s just beautiful,” she added. “It’s been a huge blessing for us.”
For Berhane, fleeing to Canada was not a simple task. Berhane noted that there are tens of thousand of refugees seeking asylum in Ethiopia and only about two per cent make it to Canada.
“I don’t take anything for granted,” he added. “The peace I have here, I don’t take it for granted and the freedom I have here, I don’t take it for granted.”
Berhane went on to say, “Only few get a chance to move to Canada.”
Berhane noted that he and his sister did not have the same fate In fact, his 33-year-old sister has been in prison in Eritrea for seven years now because of her faith.
Although Berhane stills stays in touch with his family, many of whom do not face religious persecution because they are not of Christian faith, he has been able to recreate family ties in Fernie, including his sponsors.
“They played a great role in my settlement,” he noted.
Living in a small community like Fernie, Berhane said he was able to quickly understand the culture and Canadian government system.
While searching for a full-time job, the Gould-Hawke’s supported Berhane, providing him with housing, food and even teaching him how to drive.
“It has been a great change and a great opportunity,” said Berhane, adding that he enjoys living in Fernie because of its beautiful landscape and friendly locals. “My plan is to become a contributing community member and to make my sponsors proud of me.”