Integrating new immigrants quickly and seamlessly when they arrive in Canada not only makes their lives easier, but benefits the rest of society.
For this reason, Garen Direnfeld, a social worker in Dundas, Ontario says that providing refugees and their sponsors with services that allow them to integrate into society is in everyone’s best interest.
“The degree to which we can facilitate one’s transition to Canada and the quicker that transition, the sooner these folks can be productive in a way harmonious with our values. That’s in everyone’s interest,” he says. “So spend that money upfront, and you get a faster payback in the back end.”
After the Liberal government pledged to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada, settlement agencies across the country had to quickly respond to the wave of queries from private sponsors and the general public.
Debbie Douglas, executive director of Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI), knew that her organization needed to supplement its services with something that was both accessible and informative for newcomers and eager volunteers. That something ended up being Welcome Ontario, a site that would provide both volunteers and refugees with all the information they needed in one place.
“We knew that we needed to play an information role because we are often the first point of contact for folks,” says Douglas.
Resources for refugees and sponsors
OCASI was formed in 1978 to act as a collective voice for immigrant-serving agencies in Ontario, sharing the needs and concerns of newcomer Canadians.
After Canada announced its Syrian refugee plan in November 2015, the organization was inundated with phone calls and email inquiries from folks who wanted to volunteer, donate and even offer offer jobs to the refugees.
“The quicker that transition, the sooner these folks can be productive.”
“One of the things we’re trying to do is harness the enthusiasm we were getting from Ontarians and folks from the across the country wanting to do something to help,” Douglas says.
Dave Montague, the OCASI IT and media manager, put together a simple, clean and easy-to-use website to act as a portal specifically for those involved with the Syrian resettlement process.
“What we really wanted to do with this site was — [for] sponsors or people trying to help Syrian refugees — to introduce the settlement sector, if you will, because a lot of them will be new to the whole idea of immigration and settlement,” explains Montague, who has been with the organization for more than 15 years.
He says people may not be aware of all the services, so they put together a database of all the settlement agencies of Ontario. The site also provides information regarding referrals for legal advice, housing, health care and more.
Similar initiatives across the country
OCASI is not the only organization trying to develop resources to help newcomers and refugees integrate.
In Alberta, Immigrant Services Calgary connects new immigrants to services and resources, such as employment agencies, government offices, schools, daycares, libraries, legal aid and therapeutic counselling agencies.
They also offer an Integrated Mentorship program to help immigrants find unpaid internships in the fields they are interested in working for.
“A lot of them will be new to the whole idea of immigration and settlement.”
Meanwhile in Newfoundland, the Association for New Canadians has orientation and integration programs as well as settlement social workers that work with newcomers to adjust and take steps to become established in their new home.
The Local Immigration Partnership (LIP) is yet another program that can help connect new immigrants with services in their respective communities.
These programs all build on existing networks to make services more accessible to newcomers who might not know where to begin their search.
Coordinating with settlement groups
In order to make the OCASI site useful for resettlement organizations, two additional forums were created for Lifeline Syria, a group in Toronto working with private sponsors, and Refugee 613, an Ottawa group working with private sponsors.
Over the next two years, Lifeline Syria hopes to recruit, train and help sponsor groups to welcome and support 1,000 Syrian refugees coming to Canada as permanent immigrants to resettle in the Greater Toronto Area, according to its website.
Refugee 613 offers ways for citizens to sponsor, donate or volunteer their time or resources for privately sponsored immigrants.
These programs all build on existing networks to make services more accessible to newcomers.
“This is not only what we’re about, but it’s what we can do and what we’ve proven we can do,” wrote John Tory Toronto Mayor on the Lifeline Syria website.
Nevertheless, many settlement agencies have felt overwhelmed by the number of Syrians arriving in the country, making resources like Welcome Ontario and Immigrant Services Calgary, which allow Canadians to learn more about resettlement services on their own, especially useful.
So far, Douglas says that the feedback on the site has been good.
“Often at meetings, I’ll hear, ‘Oh, we went on your site’ or somebody who used your site they’re thankful because it’s so easy to use and the information was quite relevant,” Douglas notes.
Florence Hwang is a Saskatchewan-based freelance writer. She is a media librarian who loves storytelling. She has written for La Source newspaper, CBC Saskatchewan, Saskatchewan Folklore and South Asian Post.