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Together Project participants visit Toronto’s Canadian National Exhibition in 2016. (Photo courtesy of the Together Project)

'Feeling alone in a place you don’t know is just crazy'

For some refugees, coming to Canada is incredibly lonely. Volunteers are trying to change that.

By Sarah Treleaven

Mustafa Alio was on a work visa in Canada when the conflict broke out in Syria and it became impossible for him to return home. He still chokes up at the memory of his first years in Toronto more than a decade ago, when he had a scant support network. Adjusting to his new life was complicated by worry for his family back home and the hard work required in the sink-or-swim atmosphere of an unfamiliar city and country. “Feeling alone in a place you don’t know is just crazy,” says Alio. “I didn’t speak the language, I didn’t know anyone and I would wish I just had someone to talk to.”

This edge of desperation isn’t exactly the refugee story most Canadians have become accustomed to reading. Media reports tend to be dominated by upbeat stories of weary Syrian refugee families arriving into the arms of their Canadian private sponsors — often large groups of volunteers eager to serve as friends, mentors, sounding boards and connecting agents. They can help make an unknown landscape a little more familiar.

But private sponsorship is only one of three ways that refugees can arrive in this country. The other two methods — being assisted by government or declaring asylum upon entry — don’t offer the same level of personal support. According to the United Nations refugee agency, Canada admitted a record high of 46,700 refugees in 2016, and the majority were not greeted at the border by a welcoming committee. Instead, they were likely unsure the moment they arrived of where to go or what to do.

The father of a refugee family likened meeting his welcome group to being blind and then suddenly gaining the ability to see his way forward.

Thankfully, programs are popping up to help government-assisted refugees and asylum seekers navigate their new home. Even more importantly, they make it easier for refugees to integrate socially and cultivate a sense of belonging. In turn, volunteers learn from new arrivals who are eager to contribute to Canada’s diverse cultural landscape. “I wish [all refugees] could have someone who would walk with them through everything they have to deal with,” says Anne Woolger, founding director of Matthew House, a Christian organization that houses refugee claimants in Toronto. “Just being a friend or having them over for dinner would be amazing.”

Over the last 20 years, Matthew House has grown from one location to a small network of shelters across the city. It has hosted 1,500 refugees from almost 100 countries, many referred by social service agencies. Claimants might arrive on a freezing cold day with nothing but the clothes on their back, but they walk through the front door of the original west-end site to a comfortable home. They are greeted warmly, shown around, assigned a place to sleep and given a small welcome kit including toiletries, like a toothbrush and comb, that have been collected by various church groups.

“They often tell us that little bag meant a lot to them,” says Woolger. “I’ve heard from people that they kept that comb for 10 years.”

Children play during a Together Project outing at the Kortright Centre for Conservation just north of Toronto. (Credit: Tea Hadziristic)

Over the last 20 years, Matthew House has grown from one location to a small network of shelters across the city. It has hosted 1,500 refugees from almost 100 countries, many referred by social service agencies. Claimants might arrive on a freezing cold day with nothing but the clothes on their back, but they walk through the front door of the original west-end site to a comfortable home. They are greeted warmly, shown around, assigned a place to sleep and given a small welcome kit including toiletries, like a toothbrush and comb, that have been collected by various church groups. “They often tell us that little bag meant a lot to them,” says Woolger. “I’ve heard from people that they kept that comb for 10 years.”

Matthew House aims to ease newcomers’ transition to life in Canada, assisting with basics like riding transit and finding long-term accommodations furnished by generous donors. Crucially, the organization also holds simulations of refugee claim hearings, often assisted by volunteer lawyers and former refugee board adjudicators. “This is a very nerve-racking, life-or-death thing,” says Woolger. “They learn about what questions might be asked... how to deal with their emotions, their anxiety and how to speak clearly.”

Providing a shoulder to lean on is at the core of Matthew House’s mission. But eventually claimants have to move on and make their way on their own. Woolger says her heart’s desire is that every refugee claimant could be, in some way, “adopted” when they transition to their own place. 

A recently launched Toronto-based organization is hoping to fix at least part of this gap. The Together Project, an initiative of Tides Canada, connects government-assisted refugees with Canadians willing to become a vital part of their support network, helping with everything from finding a job to taking the kids out to tap maple syrup.

Since getting started in 2016, the Together Project has trained approximately 375 volunteers and matched them with an equal number of government-assisted refugees. Welcome groups are composed of five or more Canadian volunteers who offer friendship and support. Each group also includes a “cultural ambassador” who provides language interpretation and cultural guidance.

According to Anna Hill, co-founder and director of the Together Project, the father of a refugee family likened meeting his welcome group to being blind and then suddenly gaining the ability to see his way forward. “I think this statement really encapsulates how overwhelmed many families feel when they first arrive, particularly those who have no family members or friends in Canada, nor any experience with one of Canada’s official languages,” says Hill. “Just a little bit of help from volunteers can go a long way.”

While not entirely novel (similar programs exist across the country, such as the TIES Family Matching Program in British Columbia and the Matching Program by Ottawa’s Catholic Centre for Immigrants), the Together Project is building a wide framework primarily in Toronto, but also in London, Thunder Bay and Ottawa. And the benefits are a two-way street. “Newcomers to Canada adjust to their surroundings and environment, adopting Canadian culture without erasing their own,” says Hill. “Meanwhile, Canadians adjust and make space for their new neighbours by welcoming them into their communities, making friends and learning about and accepting the array of cultures intermingling within Canadian society.”

Omar Khan got involved in early 2016 with a volunteer group that became the Together Project after he heard about newly arrived government-assisted refugees living in Toronto hotels while awaiting access to services. He has joined many of the group’s field trips, meant to familiarize newcomers with local landmarks and cultural touchstones. For example, the Together Project has sponsored picnics, hikes along the Bruce Trail and afternoons teaching refugees how to curl. Khan jokes that he has gone to Niagara Falls so many times in the last two years that he never needs to go back again.

But his favourite event took place with a small Toronto choir, which offered to perform for the Together Project as part of a fundraising effort. During intermission, one newly arrived father mentioned that his young son plays tabla, a percussion instrument. “So after intermission, his son starts playing, and everyone is singing, and then all of the refugees get up and start dancing,” says Khan. “It was so much fun. People appreciate that Canada has been generous with them, but they have something to share, too.”

"People appreciate that Canada has been generous with them, but they have something to share, too."

The benefits of providing refugees with social networks are mostly unquantifiable. Lori Wilkinson, a professor of sociology at the University of Manitoba who specializes in migration, points out that being settled is about more than the nuts and bolts of learning a new language or getting a job. “It’s about feeling like you fit in and your kids fit in and that the community wants you,” she says. “And those things are hard to measure.”

Alio’s sense of belonging in Canada was enhanced tremendously when his refugee claim was approved in March. He had applied for asylum in 2013, and five years later, he was finally granted permanent residency. “To navigate the system for refugees is a freaking overwhelming process, and having a group of people who can help is crucial,” says Alio, who now runs the Refugee Career Jumpstart Project in Toronto, which supports refugees seeking employment. “I now have the tools to give back, to participate, and I have friends. Inclusion is when you prosper and you’re able to give back as a full member of society.”

This story first appeared in The Observer's September 2018 edition with the title "Buddy system."

Sarah Treleaven is a writer in Toronto.  


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