Just having a friend to talk to during their first days in Canada – even if it was only through ‘Google Translate’ — meant the world to the hundreds of Syrian refugees who settled in the Peterborough, Ontario, area over the last 18 months.
The city’s experimental model of community “support groups”, which matched refugees with ordinary folks wanting to help out, was led by its settlement agency, the New Canadians Centre (NCC), and made a huge difference to the families fleeing war-torn Syria, said Tamara Hoogerdyk, director of front line services at the NCC.
“We had a nice group, a good group, who helped us with everything,” agreed Farhan Almohamad, who arrived in Peterborough with his wife and four young children in October, 2016. “They have been our family in Canada.”
But NCC staff, volunteers and the community as a whole have also benefited from the friendships and experiences that developed through the support groups, said Hoogerdyk, who was previously the lead in the Centre’s Syrian refugee resettlement, in an interview with JOURNEY Magazine.
“It’s something I will remember the rest of my life.”
“When you go through something like this with a group it helps you bond,” she said. “I feel like it’s a once-in-a generation thing. It’s something I will remember the rest of my life.”
And if, as a community member, you think you’ve missed out — not so. You still have a chance to help some newcomers. You, too, can make a difference.
Over the next few months, the NCC, located at the corner of Aylmer and Romaine Streets, is expecting a family of five Syrians, as well as one individual from Syria, and a family of three from Ethiopia, and it’s looking for volunteers to form support groups. Initial queries about volunteering should be directed to the NCC’s Outreach Worker, Bhisham Ramoutar, at firstname.lastname@example.org
Two years ago, staff at the NCC didn’t know exactly what to expect when the centre became one of the first settlement agencies in the country chosen by the Canadian government to act as a Resettlement Assistance Program centre for Syrian refugees.
There were many questions and few answers.
“How are we going to support these refugees?”, Hoogerdyk remembers thinking at the time. “We saw a big problem.”
It was September, 2015, when the photo of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy, made global headlines after he drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, while he and his family were trying to reach Europe amid the European refugee crisis. Canada had denied access to his family.
Private sponsors in Peterborough soon offered help and raised money to bring refugee families to the city. The NCC started working with these groups made up of families, friends, faith groups and neighbourhood citizens. These were people who were interested in sponsoring and financially supporting a refugee family for one year.
“We were worried about having a two-tiered refugee system in Peterborough.”
They provided day-to-day assistance to the families when they arrived, along with emotional support and social interaction. The NCC provided training and support, and worked with almost 50 sponsorship groups in five counties.
The first families starting arriving in October 2015 – most were from Syria, but many were from other countries as well. In total, around 100 privately sponsored refugees came to Peterborough.
But the NCC was also tasked with helping a different group of refugees – those who came to Canada as Government Assisted Refugees (GAR), and who were without a sponsorship group. In January, 2016 the NCC, with the support of the city of Peterborough, applied to receive these refugees. Money for them came directly from the federal government which hired agencies like the NCC to provide settlement services. The NCC, however, was not staffed to provide the much-needed wrap-around support like the privately-sponsored ones received, Hoogerdyk explained.
” . . . and then they would be left on their own,” she said.
“We were worried about having a two-tiered refugee system in Peterborough,” Hoogerdyk continued. “The GARs tend to have higher needs, lower education, health issues and be more vulnerable. That’s why the government is assisting them in the first place.”
Hoogerdyk and Michael VanDerHerberg, who, at the time, was her co-refugee co-ordinator at NCC, came up with a idea, which, in a short time, become a highly successful model for other similar agencies across Canada and a shining example of the Peterborough community’s kindness and compassion.
The plan: Why not form volunteer support groups committed for a year to basically provide the social and day-to-day support and community integration the NCC could not provide?
In February, 2016, the NCC held an information session asking for volunteers. The goal was to create support groups of volunteers to provide social and daily (but not financial) support. It expected about 100 people, but 450 turned out. Fifteen support groups formed immediately, some people forming on the spot without any prior connections.
You still have a chance to help some newcomers. You, too, can make a difference.
The first government assisted Syrian family arrived in May, 2016. Eighteen months later, about 250 government assisted Syrian refugees have settled in Peterborough helped by almost 500 volunteers including 45 support groups. About half of all the refugees are minors; most families have at least two children – a typical family size is four children.
See also: One Syrian Family + Two Canadians = “so much joy”
Every government assisted refugee family has been matched with a support group, which has assisted families to find housing, and introduced them to grocery stores, the library, parks, YMCA, and transit. Their members have provided child care, transportation to appointments, ESL support and tutoring, and numerous opportunities for social activities.
“Without the support groups, more families would have left Peterborough and they wouldn’t have felt as much a part of the community,” said Hoogerdyk. “With all the refugees who came here, there have been very few crises, because the support groups were there to check day-to-day. If something was brewing, we were told and were able to step in and avert it. With less isolation and stress, fewer crises developed.”
The Almohamad family is still in almost-daily contact with its group members. As Farhan eight-year-old son, Fadi, tells it: “The group are our friends.”
The NCC will continue to receive refugees as a Resettlement Assistance Program Centre until July 2018.
By Melodie McCullough