When you were first matched with the newcomer family, what sort of things did they need help with?
The first thing we worked on was getting the family’s children enrolled in high school. This included getting them assessed for what level of English they had and choosing classes they were interested in. We also connected with the school’s guidance counselor to make sure there was support at the school. We also enrolled the family in pilates and guitar lessons at the local community centre. We have also been working to find work for the mother, including building a resume together, dropping of resumes and practicing for job interviews. At the beginning of the match it was much more about getting the family settled, making sure they understood different programs and even translating important documents for them.
What sort of fun activities have you done together?
We have gone to the ROM and the Aga Khan museums together. We signed them up for the Kids Up Front mailing list to get them tickets to the opera. We go to the community centre to shoot hoops every couple weeks. We go for picnics in the park, go for coffee and practice English together. We have done a lot of fun things.
What have you learnt from this experience?
I definitely have learned a lot about Iran and the ancient Persian culture, which the family is very passionate about. I have also learned how long the resettlement process takes and how hard it is in so many different ways. It is challenging because we want to help them as much as possible, but also remember to respect newcomers’ self determination and autonomy. We mainly tried to help ensure they were in a position to succeed.
Was there anything that surprised you about this experience?
One thing that was eye-opening for me was the structural issues that exist outside of the individual family situation. There is a real lack of resources available for them to succeed. This is a difficult process for newcomers, facing a new country and a world of different experiences.
What does this experience mean to you?
I think there is so much negative rhetoric out there, especially xenophobia and racism, and it is really unfortunate to witness. People sometimes talk about refugee issues like they are experts. I don’t think, until you see what folks go through in their daily lives, you can really understand, or even begin to understand the challenges and odds newcomers are up against. I think it’s necessary for everyone to see how far we still have to go, in Canada, to embody multiculturalism. There are still a lot of structural inequities that exist which prohibit people from getting out of the cycle of poverty.
What would you say to someone who’s considering volunteering with the Together Project?
I think definitely do it. The most important thing is to help newcomers expand their networks to better access and navigate systems. Many newcomers are isolated from essential infrastructure or their credentials are not properly recognized in the job market. Toronto is a big multicultural city but there’s still so much segregation and disconnection that exists. I don’t think we are doing enough to integrate newcomers. This is why people who are in positions of privilege and opportunity need to do this work as well.
Interview by Natasha Comeau