Halifax church family welcomes refugee home

Published April 1, 2005

Sanja Pecelj, who spent 441 days in sanctuary in a Halifax church, returned to Canada after spending six months in Mexico awaiting a decision from immigration officials on whether she may live here.

Sanja Pecelj returned to Canada on Feb. 28 as a permanent resident, putting an end to a period that included 441 days as a refugee in sanctuary in the basement of an Anglican church in Halifax and nearly six months as a temporary resident in Mexico City, where she nervously waited for Citizenship and Immigration Canada to decide on her fate.

More than 40 supporters of Ms. Pecelj, including Sue Moxley, suffragan bishop of Nova Scotia, member of Parliament Alexa McDonough (NDP) and parishioners from St. Mark’s church (where Bishop Moxley served as parish priest and which served as Ms. Pecelj’s sanctuary) as well as a dozen members of the media welcomed her arrival at Halifax International Airport at 2 a.m.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said Ms. Pecelj in a telephone interview. “I was surprised to see so many of them.” ple events. As a bishop, you have no input into worship, you just go. I had to learn to pay attention to things that before weren’t my business.”

“Everyone kept saying, ‘she’s actually here!'” said Bishop Moxley. “She (Ms. Pecelj) could hardly believe it herself.”

The bishop added, “This particular battle has been won but the war against (the immigration department) isn’t over.” Bishop Moxley remarked on the many roller-coaster months that saw federal officials, including Prime Minister Paul Martin, promising to review Ms. Pecelj’s application as a refugee, and reneging on that promise. In the end, with the intervention of provincial leaders, including Premier John Hamm, a compromise was reached and Canadian immigration officials asked Ms. Pecelj to leave Canada and to reapply as a permanent resident under a program that allows provinces to sponsor employable immigrants.

Ms. Pecelj, originally from Kosovo, sought sanctuary at St. Mark’s church after her application for refugee status was denied. She came to Canada in 2000 to work as a United Nations translator at the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre in Cornwallis, N.S., and applied for refugee status saying she feared being killed if she went back to Kosovo since she had worked for the UN.

Bishop Moxley warned that unless Canada’s immigration department puts an appeal process in place, there would be other Sanjas. “She’s become the poster girl for sanctuary. Sanja’s just one person. There are thousands of other refugees like her,” she said, adding that the diocese would “absolutely” continue to provide sanctuary for refugees.

Meanwhile, Ms. Pecelj said she would recommend sanctuary as an option for refugees whose lives are in danger if they get deported. “But I would tell them honestly it’s not easy ,” she said. “I got two deportation orders. There were lots of ups and downs with immigration, not to mention all the worries that go through your mind. But there’s a big possibility that you can stay if your story is genuine.”

Her stay in Mexico was bittersweet, she recalled. “I was there with my family (her sister lives in Mexico) and they were a great support,” she said. “But sometimes I was worried, ‘what if it doesn’t go through?'” She worried about where she would go since the Mexican government had only given her a visa for six months, with no extension; it was to expire March 2.

What kept her going through months of uncertainty was the knowledge that Bishop Moxley and the people in Halifax would not abandon her, said Ms. Pecelj. “I could feel a warm hug every morning,” she said, not realizing until she got back in Halifax that each morning Bishop Moxley said a special prayer for her. “Sometimes I would wonder, ‘how do I feel better all of a sudden?'”

Ms. Pecelj said she intends to help not just refugees but “people in need” and would like to remain part of the St. Mark’s “family.”

She hoped to soon begin work as a translator/interpreter for a local company that sponsored her.


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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