Refugees get warm welcome at St. John's airport

Former refugee among those helping new neighbours start new life

Louis Power
Published on December 31, 2015

“We are friends,” Tilak Chawan told four-year-old Bassam Bokko, a refugee from Syria, at St. John’s International Airport Thursday.

Bassam, his little sister Minsa Bokko and their parents, Mohammed Bokko and Aveen Eudo, are four of the city’s newest residents. They were among 19 families — more than 100 refugees, mostly government assisted — expected to land in St. John’s New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.

Chawan, a settlement worker with the Association for New Canadians (ANC), was about Bassam’s age when his own family fled Bhutan. According to United Way’s profile of him, it was the ANC that welcomed his family when they landed in St. John’s after 20 years in a refugee camp.

Now, part of Chawan’s job is to help Bassam’s family start their new life in Newfoundland and Labrador.

“It’ll be a pretty much new start, and then telling them how it begins, how we start our lives here, and pretty much (about) the North American lifestyle and everything with it.

“And not to worry about what they have experienced, your situation back there. It’ll be really safe place, good environment and good future for the kids.”

Chawan said he could definitely sense relief among the six families whose flight from Toronto landed just after 1 p.m. Thursday. He recalled his own experience coming to this province after years in a refugee camp — a place he called a “disaster” and an “unwelcoming situation.”

“Coming here — oh my God. So thankful,” he said.

“The people are being very kind, and welcoming faces, and they are always there to make sure that you are really doing well, and that makes us feel like, ‘Oh my God. This is a paradise. This is the heaven we want to live in for years.’”


Welcome and beyond

The ANC has been preparing for months for the new arrivals, not knowing exactly how many would move here or when. The organization found out only this week about the 19 families, who add up to more than 100 individuals. The vast majority of them are government assisted, with one family being privately sponsored.

The organization’s settlement team and seven interpreters were at the airport Thursday afternoon to welcome the first six families.

“It’s been an incredible few days,” said Megan Morris, the ANC’s executive director. “We’re so delighted that it’s actually happening. We’re so delighted to receive these families and help them resettle here in St. John’s. And the volunteer support, the donations have been incredible. So it’s a wonderful day, really.”

Morris said the public has been so supportive that the ANC’s donation room was too full to accept more — until more space is available.

Ken Walsh, the ANC’s private refugee sponsorship co-ordinator, said the families will stay in temporary accommodations upon arrival, and will move into permanent homes within a few days. The ANC will help them settle into their new surroundings with extensive programming.

“These include interpretation and translation services, locating and securing housing, delivering a wide array of orientations, assisting with applying for mandatory federal and provincial programs, providing linkages to health and mental health services, enrolling children in the provincial school system and adults in language training at our ESL Training Centre, matching newcomers with community volunteers, helping them prepare and search for employment, and much more,” he said.

There’s been a big volunteer response, but helpers are still welcome — especially those who can drive occasionally or act as community liaisons, and Arabic speakers who can provide interpretation.

“While the ANC has been successful in securing interpreters for the current group of arrivals, we anticipate that the need for Arabic interpreters will continue to rise in the coming weeks and months — for both government and privately sponsored Syrian refugees,” said Walsh.

Anyone interested in providing Arabic interpretation is asked to contact the ANC at

Twitter: @TelyLouis