SASKATOON — Captain Enrique Piñeyro has been flying humanitarian missions for almost eight months as part of the non-profit group Solidaire’s commitment to helping refugees fleeing war, famine, poverty and various forms of persecution.
On Wednesday, Nov. 23, Piñeyro flew another batch of Ukrainians displaced by the war in Ukraine and other refugees from Warsaw, Poland to Saskatoon. The flight was the fourth to arrive in Saskatchewan and the first in the city, as three previously landed in Regina.
Piñeyro founded Solidaire, which is allied with Open Arms and other organizations that help refugees; he is the owner of the Boeing 787 that had 200 Ukrainians on board that endured the almost 16-hour transatlantic flight to flee their war-torn country and start a new life in Canada.
He said that despite the hour-long delay, the weather was nice, making their trip smooth and without any hitches. They landed at the Saskatoon John G. Diefenbaker International Airport at around 4 p.m. The refugees started trickling in after getting past immigration at 5 p.m.
“It was a very standard flight. We departed an hour late [in Warsaw]. We’re almost 20 flights with refugees from everywhere, from Ukraine, Afghanistan, and North Africa. I know that [Canada] people from Afghanistan,” said the Argentinian pilot.
He added that the issue of people fleeing their countries to escape war, like the one in Ukraine, and other forms of persecution had become a global humanitarian crisis and more efforts must be made to help them.
“We hope we can contribute more because it is a dire situation. There’s a brutal famine [in Afghanistan], and people are pouring through the border of Pakistan,” added Piñeyro, who has also flown Ukrainian refugees to other locations in Italy.
“Every flight is different. You fly people out of North Africa and they’ve been crossing the Libyan desert. They’ve been in prison, tortured, or put to work as enslaved people. I heard that from the people on board; it is just not something I’m saying. They’re running away from feminine genital mutilation.”
Piñeyro said there were celebrations inside the plane once it took off from the Warsaw Chopin Airport and informed everyone that they were on their way to the non-stop flight to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
“It’s a party. They dance and they pray. That was the scene inside the plane. The flight was 48 hours after the fall of Mariupol. Women, kids and older people lost a father, a husband, or a son. That was very sad,” he added.
“It was joyful. We’ve heard [an Afghan teenager] saying: ‘I’m going to be free and I will ride a bike.’ Sometimes we take small things that some people cannot do for granted in other parts of the world, like listening to music.”
Mixed emotions can be seen on the faces of the Ukrainians that arrived in Saskatoon, with some who cannot help but cry after leaving their war-ravaged country and now getting the chance to start over again on Canadian soil.
The flight to Saskatoon also included some refugees from Africa and Afghanistan, who are also trying to rebuild their lives in Saskatoon, like the displaced Ukrainians.
“These flights, I would not say relaxed, but they are toned down. It happens that it becomes the new normal. There’s a war, so people pour out of Ukraine and that thing that’s bad is it now looks normal, but it isn’t,” said Piñeyro.
He said that the Dreamliner 787 aircraft he owns once flew directly from Seoul in South Korea to Buenos Aires in Argentina in 20 hours and 19 minutes. He will again be the captain of another scheduled flight before March.
“We saw two sunsets and one sunrise in the same flight and we still have tons of fuel left with that long-range aircraft,” Piñeyro said with a smile.
He is thankful for the hospitality given by Canadians to all refugees, with the federal, provincial and local government of Saskatoon pitching in to welcome them with open arms and help them get settled in.
“Canadian hospitality is legendary. A musical was even made about it. My wife is staging that in Argentina. That’s just a side note. It impressed me how well they [refugees] are received in Canada. It was moving because I’m used to other things,” said Piñeyro.
“You bring [refugees] that have been waiting for hours and here, the whole airport is decorated with Ukrainian flags. Then they will get their social security, phones and bank accounts. Everything, including childcare.”
Piñeyro added that other countries, especially those accommodating refugees, should follow what Canada is doing.
“We need to be a little more like Canada in receiving people [refugees] because it has become a real problem. Many people are displaced nowadays and we will fly them but most of the time, we don’t know where to go. I think, in a sense, Canada is setting an example for the world.”