Meet your new neighbours

Documentary examines refugees who have recently made Winnipeg home

Every year, hundreds of people flee war-torn refugee camps for a more peaceful life in Winnipeg. In 2013, Manitoba welcomed 1,484 refugees - the highest per capita in the country. The dramatic transition between countries and cultures is what’s explored in Letters to Our Children: Stories of Refuge.

Leona Krahn - a local filmmaker who last released Beyond the Beat, a documentary about Winnipeg Grammy-nominated Christian rapper Fresh I.E. - began shooting the 45-minute film in 2012. She’s always been interested in the challenges immigrants face, which is mostly why she chose to tackle the subject matter. 

“I’ve long admired how they are able to make such a huge transition,” Krahn says. “They really leave behind everything they know to move to a new country and start all over, without knowing the language or the culture here in Canada.”

Krahn was introduced to KidBridge founder Lorelle Perry at a women’s retreat and was impressed by her work with the program, which serves as a weekly meeting place for mothers and their young children to make new friends and practice their English. Perry had also just received a grant so KidBridge could publish a book about the experiences these women have faced.

“It was really perfect timing because they were going to be embarking on this six month project and that ended up being the perfect story arc,” Krahn says.

The book tells the stories of 18 different women from 12 different countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. They write letters to their children explaining why they left their home country, what they miss most and why they ended up coming to Canada. The film documents the process, and the formation of the illustrated book.

One particularly emotional story is read by a woman from Ethiopia, who explains that her children would be orphans if she was still in Africa because there’s no way she could access adequate health care for the cancer she was recently diagnosed with. Another family from Iraq with two sets of twins describes making the transition from a large house with a swimming pool to a small apartment in Winnipeg, a decision they say they were forced to make because of the brutal, ongoing violence in the region.

“I was surprised by how most of them were actually very comfortable in front of the camera and getting to know the women was probably my favourite thing,” Krahn says. “They invited us into their homes and offered us special tea from their homeland or cooked us a meal so it was just a great opportunity to learn about other cultures.” 

The documentary had a private premiere at the Winnipeg Art Gallery just in time for International Women’s Day earlier this year. MTS Stories From Home and the CBC’s Absolutely Manitoba series also aired the film. Now it’s playing on the big screen at Cinematheque.

“I hope that people will look at our newcomer community through new eyes and just recognize what great perseverance these people have,” Krahn says. “They have a wealth of knowledge and they’re so appreciative of coming to Canada and they really want to give back to our country.”

Published in Volume 69, Number 13 of The Uniter (November 26, 2014)

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