Refugee family thankful, adjusting to Canadian life in Cornwall

The Myanmarese refugee family visits one of their co-sponsoring churches, Community Christian Reformed Church in Dixons Corners, July 17. Shown are Joseph Bya and Sana Naw and their two children, Eleazar, 7½, and Jennifer, 4, along with deacons Jeannette Devries (left) and Brad Zandbergen, along Margaret TenBrink from Immanuel Christian Reformed Church in Cornwall, the other sponsoring entity. TenBrink serves as a member of the joint Refugee Sponsorship Committee. Nation Valley News

Nelson Zandbergen
Nation Valley News

DIXONS CORNERS —  From their new home in Cornwall, the Bya family is adjusting well to life in Canada after nine years in Malaysia as unwanted refugees.

The surge of almost 29,000 Syrian refugees accepted into this country since last November has dominated the headlines, but displaced and dispossessed people have never stopped seeking entry to Canada from the globe’s other trouble spots.

That includes Joseph Bya, his wife Sana Naw and their two young children, who managed to get here May 26 with the joint sponsorship help of two local Christian Reformed Churches — Community CRC in Dixons Corners and Immanuel CRC in Cornwall.

Nine years ago, the Christian couple fled the forced labour policies of their native Myanmar (Burma), sneaking separately over the border into neighbouring Malaysia, where they lived as undocumented migrants with no rights and no prospects. Bya  told Nation Valley News that he hid in the trunk of car that entered Malaysia via Thailand, and almost died from the vehicle exhaust during the day-long trip in 2007.

“Thank you so much for God who brought us here. Thank you so much to the pastor and church leaders here,” said Bya, at the microphone during a visit to Dixons Corners on Sun., July 17.

His native Myanmar is “not a peaceful country,” he told the congregation, adding that Christians comprise a small minority in Myanmar’s largely Buddhist population and fall under “suspicion and oppression” because of their faith. “I  left in 2007 because of forced labour,” he explained.

A couple of months later, Naw followed her husband to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where Bya wound up serving as a Christian pastor to a small church. And it’s where their children were born: Eleazar, 7 ½ and Jennifer, 4, are set to start classes at Viscount Alexander Public School in Cornwall this September.

They lived in a rented flat in Malaysia — not a refugee camp — but the Muslim-majority country offered no chance of citizenship for his children, Bya explained. And as undocumented migrants of a minority religion, they were seen as fair game for exploitation by employers, police and neighbours who knew they could rob them without repercussion.

The family applied for and received refugee status from a UN agency, placing them on the waiting list for acceptance somewhere in the developed world. That recognition gave them no protection or status  in Malaysia, which isn’t a signatory to UN refugee conventions. They “never felt safe” and wouldn’t allow their children to play outside. “All the time we were worried for our kids and our lives,” he said.

Malaysian police detained him for 12 days during the family’s years in that country, for being undocumented.

Only when they landed in Canada did they feel safe [and] …  feel we have hope for the future,” he added.

First contact with the two local churches came in an email from Immanuel CRC member George Velema of Avonmore, when they were still in Malaysia, he recounted. They moved into a “beautiful” Cornwall apartment on June 2.

Their Christian Reformed sponsors “have been so kind and generous. They help with whatever we need … We so appreciate. We are so thankful,” Bya enthused.

Their sponsorship came through the Blended Visa Office-Referred (BVOR) program. The initiative sees the federal government and private sponsors split financial support for newly arrived refugees 50-50 during their first year in the country.

Spurred by the Syrian refugee crisis, the two involved churches began working together last fall to bring a refugee family to the Cornwall area.

Bya studied theology and already speaks English quite well.  His family’s mother tongue is Lisu, one of 100 tribal languages spoken in Myanmar. Since arriving in Canada, he’s been working at Velema’s Christmas tree farm, he happily reported after a picnic luncheon laden with potato salad following the church service.

They’re getting accustomed to Canadian food and are looking forward to seeing snow up close for the first time this winter.

He also expressed hope that other members of his extended family still in Malaysia might be able to leave for the west.


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