What is your name and role at Together Project?
My name is Patrick. I am a co-founder of Together Project and currently serve as a member of our steering committee assisting with governance and finance.
Tell us about your background and how you got involved as a founder.
Most of my career has been spent in strategy and finance roles but I started out working in non-profit, first with CARE and Street Kids International in Canada and then with partner organizations in Guyana, Ecuador and India.
Like most Canadians, I was shocked by the situation in Syria. Over time you become numb to the images of people caught in the conflict. Lives uprooted, destroyed. You feel powerless to help. Then Justin Trudeau announced Canada would settle 25,000 refugees from Syria. It was a bold promise. Around that time my wife and I were part of a private sponsorship of a family that fled the war and were in a camp in Turkey. Our group raised the $40,000, found a sponsorship agreement holder, the Unitarians, and got matched. We had over 25 people in the group with different teams focused on housing, health, education, and employment. We met weekly to go through the plan, to collect furniture, to look at apartments, to find language programs, to make sure we were ready. When I thought about Trudeau’s promise of 25,000 refugees, I wondered how they would all be settled.
One afternoon, I got a text from my wife. She’d been to a hotel that was being used to temporarily house government assisted refugees (GARS). She started reaching out to friends to collect winter clothing, boots and toys for kids. Within a few days I was sitting in a hotel room drinking very strong coffee calling landlords asking if the apartments they hadlisted were still available. I must have called over twenty places before we finally got a viewing that was within the budget allotted for a family of six. It was eye-opening. The family I was helping was so relieved, so grateful. And so was I. I’d made a difference. Just by sharing my time and my knowledge of Toronto.
This is the idea that Together Project was founded on. The idea that getting settled in a new country is easier when you have friends. It seemed obvious that more people would want to get involved in helping newcomers. Especially when there was no requirement to raise money. And unlike privately sponsored refugees, many GARS were already here.
Why is it important to foster social connections between volunteers and Government-Assisted Refugees and refugee claimants in Canada?
Early on, one of Together Project’s advisors, Michaela Hynie, helped us to see the relationship between social networks and upward social mobility. Inclusion, belonging, and access to contacts are critical to successful, long-term integration of newcomers. If we don’t manage integration well, we risk creating a permanent underclass of people, like what we see in parts of Europe and the US. There’s a belief that this won’t happen in Canada, that we’re naturally more inclusive than other countries. The truth is, we need to work at keeping Canada inclusive. We all have a part to play.
Together Project’s role in keeping Canada inclusive is creating a structured opportunity and tools for newcomers and volunteers to connect. People volunteer for different reasons: to connect with others, to feel a sense of purpose, to get outside of themselves, to find gratitude, to develop new skills, to learn.
It’s easy to think of refugees as the sole or even principal beneficiaries of the matches Together Project facilitates. But we see these social connections as equally beneficial to volunteers as to newcomers. It’s a two-way street. Volunteers talk about rediscovering community, learning about another culture, about discovering new foods, and learning phrases in Arabic and other languages. On the other side, we encourage our match participants to set functional integration goals, to ensure newcomers have leadership in the process so they can reach their full potential. It’s very common for newcomers to raise their hands and ask if they can volunteer with Together Project, to share their knowledge and experience in getting settled.
What is your big dream for Together Project over the next five years?
Fostering volunteer involvement in helping newcomers integrate is critical. Government services and settlement and employment agencies can only do so much. They will always be limited by budgets. The power of Together Project and other initiatives that encourage connections between Canadians and newcomers is that they are scalable. People want to get involved. They want to share their knowledge and experience. Our job is to promote the idea and provide a platform.
Looking ahead five years, my hope for Together Project is that we continue to strengthen our program with partnerships and training that support employment for our participants. Solving the job problem is key. Together Project is not an employment agency, but our volunteers can help with networking, introduction to employers, developing soft skills, and with understanding social norms. We can also play an important role working with our corporate partners, TD Bank, The Ritz Carlton, Shopify, and others to advocate for training programs and internships that build Canadian experience and lead to full-time employment.
At the same time, we must continue to do what we do well. Together Project creates social connections, building a sense of belonging and social inclusion. This is more important than ever for both newcomers and our volunteers.
When I think about the number of displaced people around the world, 70 million people who can’t return home because home doesn’t exit, or because it’s not safe for them, I believe Canada has an important role to play, both in the number of refugees and claimants we settle, but also in terms of the programs we offer and the unique way we engage volunteers in the process. It’s daunting to think about how climate change, war, and the impact of a pandemic like COVID-19 will impact the number of people seeking asylum, but I’m encouraged with each volunteer that signs up, each match Together Project makes.
Together Project was founded on the belief that creating social connections between newcomers and Canadians builds stronger, more integrated communities. We believe these relationships enrich us all.
Early on, one of our co-founders, Craig Damian Smith, encouraged us to think about integration as a dynamic process of adaptation between newcomers and the societies of destination states. Adaptation means that we learn from one another other, that we grow together. This process creates stronger, more inclusive communities. It creates a stronger, more inclusive Canada. That’s the Canada I want to live in.