When Alexandra Dawley saw the faces of the privately-sponsored Afghan refugee family she picked up at Vancouver International Airport a few weeks ago, she instantly recognized the look on their faces: relief.
Dawley, the senior manager of refugee resettlement and integration programs at MOSAIC, had seen the same look in the Winter of 2016, while assisting recently-arrived Syrian refugees. She had been getting ready to leave the hotel that was serving as temporary accommodation for these refugees when she looked for her jacket and found it on the floor, with a two-year-old Syrian girl curled up on it, fast asleep.
The girl’s mother had looked at Dawley. With teary eyes and a deep release of breath — relief — Dawley remembers her saying: “My daughter’s at peace and I’m at peace. Now, we have a new life and we’re going to move forward.”
In an interview with New Canadian Media, Dawley stresses the importance of those human connections when working with refugees.
“If we can take things from humanitarian to human,” she says, “we need to work together to make safety possible.”
Understanding the community
As settlement organizations like MOSAIC are often the first point of contact for refugee newcomers, they play a critical role in creating services that are person-centred.
MOSAIC has been helping resettle immigrants and refugees for over 45 years. Today, it continues assisting new Afghan refugees navigate various challenges while settling into their new life, Dawley says.
She points to the organization’s Afghan-led Advisory Committee, as well as several recently hired Afghan staff who speak Farsi or Pashto, as examples of how it is trying to enhance its services to best meet the community’s needs.
Zarghoona Wakil, senior manager of specialized and innovative programs at MOSAIC, came to Canada as an Afghan refugee in 2005. She says that “for the specific Afghan response, what we want to do is to mobilize the local Afghan community.” Including staff with lived refugee experience, she says, is crucial to help both co-workers and the organization’s leadership understand newcomers’ needs and to plan for appropriate programming.
Gulalai Habib, director of settlement and integration at Burnaby Neighbourhood House (BNH), who arrived in Canada as a refugee from Afghanistan 20 years ago, says the capacity of the Afghan community is much stronger now.
She agrees on the importance of lived experience to understand both the cultural and current displacement context. Helping people access missing documentation back home, for example, requires deep knowledge and experience of how the system there works, she says.
Roxy Hamidi, co-founder of youth-advocacy group BC4Afghans, says it’s important not to duplicate efforts but rather “to be that bridge” among various organizations and communities.
Hamidi created BC4Afghans after the fall of Kabul in August 2021 along with five other young working professionals: Soraya Ahmad Parwani, Farhad Nazem, Hadia Samim, Razma Hazarat, and Ahmad Yasin. All are either refugees themselves or have parents who are, and are deeply involved in the Afghan community.
BC4Afghans has been able to help around 300 newcomers so far by quickly building trust within their own community, says co-founder Parwani.
The group has taken a staged approach: first providing necessities like hygiene items, followed by winter clothing from their distribution centre, and finally services like translation and child care assistance.
They have partnered with various organizations such as Burnaby Neighbourhood House (BNH), which has helped them access a van to drop off donations.
Habib is grateful for the “timely and flexible” funding provided by financial services firm Vancity, which enabled BNH to support BC4Afghans and to hire a case manager with Afghan background to oversee services to the Afghan community.
In her view, neighbourhood houses that offer adaptable, multi-age services easily accessible under one roof provide a space for community connection and active participation. This kind of community service hub, she says, ensures that services are provided “with” rather than “for” the community.
But community-led support programs aren’t as readily available to everyone as they should be, according to BC4Afghans.
“Engagement of the local Afghan community is necessary for settlement and integration of new families coming here,” says Parwani.
“There’s a huge need to be able to build trust … to come from a shared experience … an understanding not even necessarily of the trauma but … just the culture itself.”
Wakil, from MOSAIC, says there’s also been a high level of anxiety among the established Afghan community given its strong sense of family responsibility.
To address this, MOSAIC opened a helpline for people seeking to sponsor family members through the government’s Private Sponsorship of Refugees (PSR) program. It also conducted information sessions in English, Pashto and Farsi.
Dawley says currently MOSAIC is working with 2,000 people seeking sponsorship and 495 who are interested in being sponsors.
She hopes the United Nations Refugee Agency will waive the current requirement for refugee status prior to resettlement, as this would significantly speed up the process.
Appropriate housing is another big issue facing newcomers, according to Wakil, given families have many children and limited financial support from government resettlement assistance. She says with 42 per cent of Afghans under the age of 15, most of the families arriving are large and have minors.
Dawley says the province is looking into using houses scheduled for demolition as potential accommodation as the wait period from purchase by a developer can be up to eight years.
Another challenge refugees face is getting the documentation required to access provincial services. Eligibility for COVID vaccinations, for example, requires a Personal Healthcare Number. Wakil says service providers answering the health line have inadequate training to communicate with new arrivals.
When asked whether they have a personal healthcare number, these Afghan refugees have no idea what it means, she says. They are then told, “‘We cannot identify you. I’m sorry, we cannot serve you.’ So, what happens is that an interpreter’s presence does not solve the problem all the time.”
Through a working group, MOSAIC aims to raise awareness of these issues and address them with relevant stakeholders.
For Habib, from Burnaby Neighbourhood House, it’s crucial to “include the level of expertise of refugees and immigrant professionals at all levels,” throughout the settlement sector — even if it isn’t easy and takes time.
“Otherwise we will have a deep disconnect with the service delivery and consistency of the approach from the frontline to the managerial level,” she says.
Daniela Cohen is a freelance journalist and writer of South African origin currently based in Vancouver, B.C. Her work has been published in the Canadian Immigrant, The/La Source Newspaper, the African blog, ZEKE magazine, eJewish Philanthropy, and Living Hyphen. Daniela's particular areas of interest are migration, justice, equity, diversity and inclusion. She is also the co-founder of Identity Pages, a youth writing mentorship program.