A milestone in East Kootenay refugee support arose this month. Pan Mao, his wife Pat, and their children celebrated thirty years in Canada with a visit from Calgary to Cranbrook United Church. CUC had sponsored them after they endured ten lost years in Cambodian refugee camps.
“Since the late 1970s and ongoing today, the EK region welcomes hundreds refugees from horrors in Southeast Asia, Latin America, Europe and the Middle East,” said Arne Sahlen of the Cambodia Support Group, which arranged the Mao sponsorship. “CUC had one of countless groups sponsoring Cambodians from Creston to Golden in the 1980s. Besides all the other refugees, well over ninety Cambodians found freedom, friendship and opportunity in the EK embrace.”
Pan and Pat reached Canada in October 1989, on a flight with six other Cambodian refugees destined for Kimberley, Creston, and another group in Cranbrook. The Maos came with sons Pete and Terry; daughter Tara was born soon after. The parents studied English at then-East Kootenay Community College (now COTR). They worked for many years as college, home and office cleaners, and bought a house off Victoria Drive. They then moved to Calgary to build their own home and enroll Terry in University. Terry now works in hi-tech, Pete in delivery and Tara in the pharmacy field.
CUC member Joy Colombo had taught Terry in Grade 1 at Steeples School. After the October church service, she recalls, “Terry saw me and walked through the crowd right to me. He gripped my hand, fingers intertwining. Taking all those photos, he would not let go of my hand.” Several current CUC members had worked in the Mao sponsorship team, and enjoyed happy reunions as well, Sahlen says.
“The Maos were so ecstatic to see folks they recognized,” says Colombo. “They are very appreciative of all.”
“This triumph shows the good that can happen when people reach out,” Sahlen said “Our region has a great record of refugee aid. An Immigration officer told us that sponsoring levels were more-or-less consistent across BC – except for the off-the-scale East Kootenays! Not long ago, two planes landed 90 minutes apart with different refugee families for different support groups – both in Kimberley. The many, many success stories prove the value of offering Canada’s benefits to the world’s downtrodden. Sponsors around the region still keep this vital work alive, much encouraged and guided by Shauna Jimenez of Wasa.
“The Maos gave a large donation to CUC. They thanked sponsors and friends for the immense gift of escape from war-torn struggle and refugee stagnation to the living dream of peace and liberty in Canada.”