What is your role at Together Project and how did you get involved?
My name is Hani Bashir and I am a Steering Committee member at Together Project. I bring my lived experience as a newcomer and a refugee to our Together Project team.
After almost 3 years in Canada I feel very fortunate to call Toronto and Canada my home but I am still rebuilding and connecting with my new community here. For me, arrival began with a lot of worry during the first few months, followed by a period where I found myself engaging with the amazing settlement sector and workers as a client and newcomer. After this six month period, I found myself volunteering at Adam House, a place where I felt really welcomed and supported as a refugee.
Later, I joined Matthew House as a volunteer member of the Refugee Hearing Program (RHP) after being one of the program’s beneficiaries. I can only describe this program as life changing; the idea of assisting claimants to prepare for their hearings before the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) is crucial. RHP was founded and created by a former refugee claimant, my friend Helton Achaye, to help claimants prepare for their hearing emotionally and mentally.
Then I started as a settlement worker with unaccompanied minors at Matthew House Toronto where I eventually got promoted to be a settlement supervisor (Hani laughing here). I was in touch with the Crossroads Clinic at Women’s College Hospital and a doctor on staff, Dr. Vanessa Reddit, who asked me to participate in a Together Project focus group. This led me to do some research on Together Project’s work. I got really attached to a Together Project video about the Welcome Group experience and I shared it with different Facebook Groups. When the Together Project asked me to join the Steering Committee, I was happy to get involved and share my perspective with the team.
Hani can you tell us about your background?
I was born and raised in the western part of Sudan, in Darfur. This region has been really affected by long term war and conflict. But the unique thing about my area and Sudan is that there is so much community support. We have a special word for community, “Nafeer” that means “together-support”.
We talk about Nafeer in the sense that together, we can work, build or do things together like support our local hospital, a school, build a home or even do some gardening. Everyone has a role to play; some people bring food and drinks; some people take care of the kids; but with community work, we are stronger together.
We also believe that one person’s success is tied to the Nafeer that supports that person. I am a medical doctor by profession because my family, friends, and community supported me to become a doctor. I am the guy I am because of Nafeer. When I made the decision to come to Canada, my mother was really worried that I would suffer from the loss of my community.
I will tell you a story from my town in Sudan. There was a new teacher and we wanted to welcome the teacher into our community. We said, “Hey, you need to come and get to meet us in our homes so we can welcome and cook for you!” The community did that small gesture to welcome him, as we know that he has a family back in another city and this may cause emotional stress for him so we activated our Nafeer in our village and built him a small house for him and his little family. This kind of welcome for a stranger has always stuck in my mind when I think about the role of volunteers in welcoming newcomers to Canada.
There are many layers of community but when you blend it all together – those who need help and those who don’t – you can see that sometimes you need to give support and sometimes you need to receive it.
Why is it important to build social connections between volunteers and Government-Assisted Refugees and refugee claimants in Canada?
Coming to Canada as a refugee claimant or a Government-Assisted Refugee means dealing with a lot of fear and uncertainty. You think you have come to a safe country but there are so many challenges, even if you speak English and are well educated. You arrive with a dream but you don’t know how to achieve it. This is where the volunteers can step in and ease the newcomer’s journey. Volunteers can empower newcomers to work through their initial fear and start to understand Canadian culture. Volunteers can help newcomers access resources to help them build a new life and give them a feeling of belonging to the community.
Even for volunteers, it is very rewarding to play this role. When I volunteer with newcomers in my Thorncliffe Park community, I discover new perspectives every day. When I help one newcomer learn to speak English or find a path to employment, I feel that I am making my community stronger and better. I can even say that I am making Canada stronger.
Newcomers will always miss their friends and family back home but when my mother hears that I am well-supported by my friends and a new community in Canada, she feels so happy and this is so important for her. I think this is true for many newcomers – they need to reassure people back home that Canadian communities are welcoming. Right now, I have been offering different types of Nafeers. This is because I am working with a community of newcomer healthcare workers and we are supporting refugees in accessing healthcare services during this time.
Why are social connections especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic?
With COVID-19, something has changed in our lives, and this could be forever. COVID-19 shows us that every choice we make directly affects our community. It also shows us how to react with our community in mind. Together Project emphasizes the importance of human connections through our Welcome Group program. Human connection is what we really need during difficult times. Ideally, social connection involves a physical presence so that we can talk, interact, smile and laugh and even cry together. COVID-19 has taken something really precious away from us; it’s that simple idea of being together in person. I have been in Canada for three years and this loss of human connection is really difficult for me and for many in Canada and around the globe. But social isolation is even more difficult for someone who has only been in Canada for three months and has no friends or family.
I have had to learn to connect with people remotely using many different online platforms like ZOOM, WhatsApp, Viber Messenger and BlueJeans. Of course I would rather meet with people in person but I am doing what I have to do to help my community during this difficult time. It brings me a lot of joy even to see people’s faces on a video screen. I talk to my mom back home and she shows me her little kitchen. I chat with my colleagues, learn how to play guitar (which still I need more time), and listen to live concerts with my Sudanese Canadian Community and friends virtually.
I am also part of a few different international medical initiatives such as the Immigrant Healthcare Support Network which is a network of internationally and nationally educated health professionals committed to using their skills and experiences to support equitable access to quality healthcare for refugees, newcomers, and other members of the community in Canada and globally. The story of this initiative grew out of the vision of its founder, my friend Paulin R. Polepole. As a new immigrant, a refugee, and caregiver seeking healthcare services with language and cultural barriers, he understood how challenging it was to seek healthcare services for many members of the community, particularly newcomers. He knew that telling a clear story about your health complaint, and in turn communicating clearly with the healthcare personnel are key factors for a successful interaction between the patient and the healthcare provider. He shared these thoughts and reflections with community leaders, members, healthcare providers, other co-founders and together we decided to create a network to allow us as healthcare professionals to channel our skills and experiences to support those who are requiring help to access quality healthcare services. We are now trying to empower and lead by example so other newcomers and refugees can have that positive impact during this time.
I am telling you this story as an example of what newcomers have contributed and will contribute to the Canadian communities. If we welcome and support newcomers when they arrive, they will share, exchange, and transform their talents and expertise to benefit Canadian society more quickly and can make Canada stronger. Refugee perspectives on resilience are especially important during COVID-19. Within my Sudanese-Canadian community I have regular calls with people who need support; whether that is a healthcare worker who is facing burnout or a newcomer family worried that they might have COVID-19. Newcomers really need social connections to rebuild their sense of community, especially when they first arrive and even more so now, during this pandemic.
What is your big dream for Together Project over the next five years?
I like to dream. We should always be happy when we have a good dream. My dream for Together Project is that we can replicate and scale the impact we are having in the Greater Toronto Area to different cities in Canada. I want Together Project to share with the government that Welcome Groups can make a big difference in newcomers’ arrival experience in Canada. It takes time to document our impact but I think we have a good program that can make communities stronger. I also dream of delivering our program globally. I want refugees around the world to feel welcome and to be able to share their talents with their new communities in their new homes.
At the end of the day, I think we all need to go to bed and ask ourselves, what did I do today, this week, this month, this year to make the world better? Together Project is already creating a positive impact but in five years, we cannot be the same. We need to be better.
Interview by Anna Hill