As of February 2015, 26,000 Syrian refugees have been resettled in Canada. rabble.ca's Activist Toolkit is interviewing people who are on the frontlines of refugee settlement to find out about what they are seeing on the ground and what additional supports they need to address the needs of this surge of refugees.
In our first blog on this subject we interviewed Michael C. Stephenson, Director of Sanctuary Health about the recent changes to health-care policy.
Our second interview is with Maisie Lo is Director of Immigration Services at Woodgreen Community Services. She and the staff who work on settlement, are stretched thin at this one stop shop for immigrants who are arriving in Canada.
For refugees, the staff is working with both private sponsors (providing assistance with the process and once refugees arrive) and helping privately sponsored refugees when they arrive. The government-sponsored refugees are being supported by COSTI. Immigrant Services staff have a staggering number of programs available and issue areas to cover -- among which are housing, immigration paperwork, job matching, ESL programs and much more.
What do you do at Woodgreen and how long have you been Director of Immigration Services?
I have been at Woodgreen for a long time, and have been Director of Immigration Services since 2008. WoodGreen Community Services is one of the largest social service agencies in Toronto and we try to be a one stop shop for our clients.
Therefore our team has been helping refugees with housing, with navigating health care and education in Ontario, with ESL, with many of their needs including navigating the immigration system. We are stretched thin, working with the immigration system is sometimes time consuming (it can take staff up to three hours on the phone to make a simple change to an immigration document), but it is very rewarding.
Could you describe some of the challenges you saw refugees face during the years of repeated cuts to services?
Well, for many years there were very few refugees being allowed into the country. Refugees were facing so many hurdles coming into Canada, so at Woodgreen we saw very few refugees come through our doors. We do not turn people away at Woodgreen, and whoever came found someone to address their needs.
(editor's note: click here to learn more and read the Broadbent Institute report on Canada's record on refugee and immigrant rights under Harper)
At this point there are 26,000 refugees who have arrived in Canada. Woodgreen has been helping this community. What are you doing and what needs are you seeing in the new refugee community?
There is so much we are doing, since we try to provide a wide range of services and turn no one away, so this is just a small sampling. You can visit our website for a more comprehensive list of our services.
Right now, I have two staff dedicated to providing working with landlords to find out about affordable housing in the GTA. Woodgreen, along with the donated services of Deloitte and the Konrad Group have come together to create a new online portal to match Syrian refugees in need with offers of housing, goods and services. The Housing Opportunities & Marketplace Exchange (H.O.M.E) portal allows donors -- both businesses and individuals -- to post available housing, goods and services to help Syrian refugees arriving in Toronto.
Our settlement and language teams have been supporting refugees in other issues such as orientation and language services. We are also constantly building new programs to address needs. One such new program is to take refugees, many of whom are currently in hotels around the city waiting to find apartments and residential housing, around the city of Toronto to see the iconic sights in this city.
We always need volunteers who speak Arabic, and have skills that can be of help to the refugees, to come out and help. Please contact us to find out more about the trips we are planning.
As you have become more acquainted with the needs of the community, what are the refugee needs you see that are not being met.
It has been amazing working with refugees. They are working to build their lives, taking whatever job they can. From what I have seen there are two kinds of refugees coming from Syria, people who are highly educated, generally from urban areas, and people, generally from rural areas, with no knowledge of English or French, and who do not have education higher than high school. Both these sets of people are currently highly motivated to work, to resettle, but they will have different long term needs.
In time, they may also need trauma counselling -- after they have addressed the basic needs of settlement -- finding housing, finding work, getting the kids in school.
Speaking of schools, there are kids arriving (of all ages) and don't speak much English who will need help learning English while keeping up with their coursework. Basically there are a lot of long term needs in the community that will begin to become increasingly apparent, and there needs to be infrastructure and funding to address these needs in a systemic way.
However, I would like to say, that I have never been so impressed by people. I came to Canada as an immigrant over 27 years ago, and I have never seen this kind of community engagement in supporting refugees. People are calling us with housing, with jobs, eager to help. I hope that this kind of support can be extended to other marginalized communities as well. I am also in awe of many of the refugees I am meeting. Their resilience and their strength as they rebuild their lives is inspiring.
My main concern, in terms of long-term needs, is what happens in a few years, when the Syrian crisis, hopefully, is no longer in the news, when there is a need to meet long term needs of the community. We need to have adequate resources at all levels to meet these needs.
How do community members get involved in helping Woodgreen?
If you want to help our work, contact us, particularly if you speak Arabic, and let us know if you can volunteer some time as a translator. We do serve a lot of communities, and we always welcome people who are able to help us. Also if you have goods, services, or housing that could be useful for refugee resettlement, please list it on HOME.