Ray Loewen: Build a Village

Heritage Group meeting of February 15, 2018.

Photo of Ray Leowen addressing the Heritage Group
Ray Leowen addressing the Heritage Group

Ray is a lifelong resident of Manitoba. He and his wife Linda adore spending time with their three married children and nine grandchildren, aged two to eleven. They also enjoy travelling and spending time at the lake.

Ray’s day job is as the President of a General Motors dealer in Altona. He started in the car business in 1973 as a salesperson and, as Ray says, “One thing led to another”.

Ray’s passion is a non profit organization called Build a Village that he helped found in 2001 in response to the earthquakes in El Salvador. In partnership with the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), they have raised one million dollars to help build 400 homes for people who had lost theirs.  Over a period of a few years, they have sent ten teams to that country to help with the rebuilding process.

Build a Village began sponsoring refugee families in 2005. A commonly held belief in those days was that urban centres were better suited to settling refugees than rural settings. Since that time they have sponsored 30 refugee families (over 200 people), and have plans to sponsor many more in the coming years.

Ray thanked the Heritage Group for inviting him and commended us for bringing in other speakers related to the refugee crisis.

The Stats

Photo of refugees in a boat
FotoshopTofs / Pixabay

At a rate of four people every three seconds, over 65 million people are displaced in the world today, 40 million within their own borders. 22.5 million are seeking refugee status.  There are more refugees today than since World War II.

An asylum seeker is a person whose refugee status is undetermined.  So many people are displaced in Lebanon and Jordan that they have stopped waiting for refugee status and are leaving as asylum seekers.

People are forced to leave their country by war, persecution, and natural disasters. Not choosing to be refugees, they are innocent victims who have no control over the situation in their countries. Ray gave the example of Angelica, who came to Toronto as a student from Venezuela six years ago. While she was here, the situation in Venezuela changed and she couldn’t go back.  Angelica never imagined that Venezuela could be a place that anyone would have to flee.

Photo of Alan Kurdi's lifeless body on a beach by Nilüfer Demir from DHA Agency (Turkey)
Photo of Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body on a beach by Nilüfer Demir from DHA Agency (Turkey)

Though peoples’ feelings about refugees vary, a three-year-old Syrian boy washing up on a Mediterranean beach in 2015 was a turning point, making it difficult for anyone to ignore the situation any longer.  The Canadian government began accepting more refugees in response.


Refugees pose a great danger to individuals and countries.
Politicians such as Trump have played on this fear to rally support.  John Kelly, former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, stated, “We cannot gamble with American lives”. Yet since 911, foreign born terrorists have killed but one American per year.  And not one of those terrorists came from countries falling under Trump’s imposed travel ban.  The chances of being killed by an illegal alien in America are one in 138 million, while Americans with guns kill 30,000 people per year. 115 Americans die every day from opioid overdoses, but there is no call for a ban on opiods. Refugees flee the same people who frighten us (ISIS, Boko Haram, etc.).  They are fleeing terrorists; they ARE NOT terrorists.

We spend more money on refugees than on pensioners.
Not true.  Ray described one Build a Village refugee who now lives in Altona.  He receives less than $800 a month, which covers $700 rent, food, phone, and transportation.

Refugees are responsible for increased crime rates.
American statistics show that the incarceration rate for immigrants in the 18 to 49 age group is actually much lower than it is for others.

Refugees take our jobs.
Untrue, like all the other myths. Friesen printers in Altona, for example, employ 100 people from other countries and still have to recruit abroad to get enough of a workforce.

The majority of refugees are men.
In actual fact, more than half of the refugees are children.

Refugees are a drain on society.
Definitely not true.  Ignorance, as displayed by an MLA from Altona who commented that refugees were a drain on society, spreads the myth quickly. Refugees start businesses as soon as they can, and pay taxes like the rest of us.  Like some refugee friends of Ray’s daughter (one is a medical Dr. whose mother is a pharmacist), many are professional people.  Ray notes that his grandparents were refugees, coming from Russia in 1925 with nothing.

marcisim / Pixabay

The People

They are no different from you and me, with the same hopes and dreams for their children and grandchildren. Ray has been very touched by the people sponsored by Build the Village in Altona and what they have endured. And selection is not based upon religion, personal history, etc. Only the name and ages of refugees are provided by the government. 

Ray described some of the  people who are now living in Altona.

  1. Don’s story is tragic, as it is with so many refugees.  He was working for the military.  After being told month after month that his pay was coming, he finally pressed the issue, whereupon the military handed him over to the police under some trumped up charges.  Jailed for six years, he managed to escape. But after fleeing, he fell out of a tree while collecting firewood for cooking and broke his back, becoming a paraplegic.  He then applied for refugee status from hospital. Build a Village set him up in a small apartment with a hospital bed, TV, couch, and small table and chairs.  When Don was taken into his new home he was told “these are your things”.  Ray said they wondered by the look on his face if they should have provided more.  But when asked, Don said he was overwhelmed. From the time he was a child, he never expected to have anything of his own.  All they had were some basic needs met. Don now volunteers in his building’s kitchen.  He learned how to crochet while in hospital and crochets every day. He sells his crocheting and manages to even send money to his siblings back home.
  2. Dee had a middle class or better life in her country until the conflict.  She witnessed the murder and rape of many family members.  Dee took her three kids and fled through the jungle. Build a Village set Dee and her children up in a little house, pre-bought groceries and furnished the house.  Dee asked Ray if he knew that a mixture of fine dust and water could keep a child alive.  She said she would mix half dust half water to fill up the bellies of the children when they fled.
  3. One Syrian family lost everything when their farm and livestock were bombed.  When picked up at the Winnipeg airport, one of the children pointed at a plane and asked where the plane was going to drop its bombs. 
StockSnap / Pixabay

Other similar stories have left quite an impact. Someone said, “Listen you can hear the birds?” Ray said this was a privilege he had never fully appreciated; you don’t hear birds singing in a war zone. Ray once apologized for the snow and cold to a refugee who had just landed in Winnipeg. “Maybe cold, maybe snow, but no guns, no bombs!” was the response.


All refugees have heart-wrenching stories.  They are people who, through no fault of their own, need our help.  Many are children.  How can we stand by when they need our help?  Refugees bless us. They bring so much to Canada. They expand our worldview. Now we have a personal connection to refugee stories.  One reporter sarcastically asked, “So, do you think you changed the world?” Ray replied,  “We changed the future for one family”.  Each of us can change the world for one family.

Ray said that there are 100 to 200 volunteers with Build a Village who form support groups of about ten people per refugee.  Used to dealing in cash in their home countries, refugees don’t understand our financial systems. So a support group will help with finances, as well as with health, transportation, finding education, and getting the kids into schools.  Volunteers often become good friends with their refugees. Volunteering is a lifetime commitment.


Many questions and comments followed Ray’s talk, raising other points:

  • Syria has over 1,000 different warring factions.
  • There were 20 mass shootings in the U. S. in 35 days, while there were 18 school shootings in the rest of the world.
  • We need to address problems in these countries before people become refugees.

Categories: All, Guest Speakers

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