Back, Jenat, Treasure, Daniel and Sam, and front, Sharon and Duarte Reis. Photo by Gerry Leibel

Kitimat opens its arms to provide safe refuge

Welcome the Kirenga family

Widow Jenat Kirenga was forced to abandon her three children and flee Africa out of fear for her life, marking the beginning of a 14 year odyssey which only ended when her family was reunited, and eventually welcomed into the home of Kitimat couple, Sharon and Duarte Reis.

Jenat’s story begins in her birth country of Rwanda, which her grandparents fled from to escape persecution. Her grandparents found temporary refuge in what is now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country also familiar with conflict, the last war resulting in the deaths of over five million people.

“The war in the Congo wasn’t stopping. I didn’t have a choice. I had to leave the country,” said Jenat, who doesn’t talk about her horrific experiences as a refugee.

“It got so bad we couldn’t sleep in the house at night. We could spend the daytime in the house, but we would have to gather our possessions and spend the night hiding in the bush.”

Jenat, like so many refugees, was eventually forced to flee the Congo as well, finding herself in a refugee camp in Uganda where she was safe from the rebels that were massacring her countrymen.

One of the thousands of people in the refugee system in Uganda, Jenat was fortunate to meet a Ugandan man, who she later married. The couple settled into a comfortable life, producing three children, Daniel, Samuel and Treasure.

Tragedy struck, however, and Jenat was widowed, and unable to prove that she and her children were Ugandan citizens, she faced having to return to certain death in the Congo.

Her only other option was to move onwards again, and she approached a mission who promised her refuge and a job in China.

She left her three children with her mother in a refugee camp, intent on making a home in China for her and her family. However, when she arrived in China, she discovered that there was no work and no way of bringing her children over.

To make matters worse, she discovered that she had only been given a one-way ticket to China, and was told that if she wanted to leave, she would have to buy a return ticket herself.

“I stayed in the airport for four days until I found a Good Samaritan who helped me enter Hong Kong,” said Jenat. She hoped she would be able to secure refugee status and bring her family over.

It would take three and a half years to finally be reunited with her children, with her youngest Treasure not knowing who she was when the children finally arrived in Hong Kong.

During that time, she and the missionaries who had agreed to reunite her with her family, used photos of her children to raise money to get her children to Hong Kong.

The passports had to be specially arranged, which was challenging considering it would take eight hours for someone to travel to the refugee camp to locate the children where they were staying with Jenat’s mother.

The last hurdle was having to raise more money, this time to buy an air ticket for an adult that could bring the children to Hong Kong.

When the day arrived, the children were kept in quarantine for four days before a tearful and joyous reunion with their mother.

A chance meeting in 2013 with another asylum seeker, Hyppo Ditonne, on a beach in Hong Kong, led to a conversation around where the Kirenga family saw themselves ending up.

“He asked my son – ‘What is your favourite country?’. My son immediately said ‘Canada’,” said Jenat. “It was so strange – we had never sat down and discussed possibly ending up in Canada!”

“Hyppo immediately said he would find a sponsor to get us to Canada. I started crying.”

Hyppo and his wife Shannon, a Kitimat resident, set about finding Jenat and her children a family in Canada that would take them into their home. They contacted the Reis family, and sent them a video of Jenat and her children.

“When we watched the video we knew we had to take care of this single mom and her children,” said Sharon. “We first approached the church in 2014 to apply to have them sponsored.”

At the time, during the Kitimat Modernization Project, there was very little accommodation in Kitimat and the church said that the Reis’ would have to take the whole family into their home if the church were to consider sponsoring them to come to Canada.

The Reis’ agreed and the application was submitted by the church in August 2014. What followed was three years of anxious waiting for both Jenat and her family, and Sharon and Duarte.

“I wasn’t worried – I knew it would work out,” said Jenat. “God chose Canada for me, and God chose the Reis family as well.”

Three years later, on March 21, Jenat’s prayers were answered – both families received news that their application for Jenat and her children’s refugee status in Canada had been approved, the only application to be approved for entry to Canada for all those applying from Hong Kong.

Finally, on May 8, both families’ waiting was over – Jenat and her children touched down in Vancouver, where they were met by Sharon who brought them back to their new home in Kitimat.

They arrived on Monday night and at 5.30 a.m. on Wednesday morning, the kids were up and about, ready to go to school.

“As soon as the kids arrived, they had friends – they knew we were coming,” said Jenat.

She said the children have adapted a lot quicker than she has to life in Canada.

“It’s hard to explain how I feel. Everything is new. Sometimes I feel like a newborn baby,” said Jenat.

She said she is grateful that her children will not have to experience the horrors of growing up like she did.

“You can’t imagine what it’s like, to be walking down the road and to be spat on and told this isn’t your home,” she added.

“I know that at least my children’s generation will see change in their lives.”

Jenat said the family has settled in easily without any major adjustments.

Daniel, who is nearly 13, Sam,11, and Treasure, 8, are right at home in Kitimat, playing with the other kids in the neighbourhood, taking part in sports, going for treats at DQ and answering many questions about their lives at school.

Sharon said having Jenat and her family live with them is like having another daughter and more grandchildren.

“They aren’t just living in our home – they are part of our family,” said Sharon. “We receive more than what we give. Jenat always wants to take care of us.”

Jenat says helping out around the house is the least she can do to show her gratitude.

“God blessed me not only with a country, but with a family as well.”

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