What is your role at Together Project?
My name is Shadi Shami. First, I was a fan of Together Project, and then, in January 2019, I had the honour to join this beautiful project and sit on the Steering Committee as a volunteer member.
Please tell me a little bit about your background and how you got involved.
I bring a wide range of expertise in education, translation/ interpretation, training/ coaching and personal/professional development, public speaking, meaningful community engagement, project management, volunteer management and events planning; in addition to my experience in settlement and supporting refugees and newcomers through counselling/mediation and integration. In my last role as a Community Engagement Counselor and Volunteer Coordinator at the Arab Community Center of Toronto (ACCT), I was involved in supporting refugees and newcomers through settlement, counseling and community engagement.
Taking into consideration the harshness of finding a job for newcomers with limited or no knowledge of the English language and taking into consideration the importance of employment in the integration and settlement process, I co-founded the ACCT New Canadians’ Kitchen which is known currently as Walima Kitchen. This is a large project to integrate newcomer women who suffered from trauma as a result of war, displacement and experiences in the camps. I supported them on their journey learning English, starting a business, and understanding the full range of opportunities in Canada. I also worked on community engagement with newcomers who have been in Canada for some years but who still face integration challenges. I helped ACCT develop community partnerships to allow newcomers to get to know their community in greater depth and to help them adapt to Canadian society.
After working at ACCT, I started another initiative called Maqloubeh Kitchen. In this initiative, we bring together newcomer women who have not yet found a job but who are passionate about cooking. We help them gain skills and create opportunities. With the support of other specialized team members, we do the marketing for them and help them sell their amazing mediterranean food to generate revenue. The food is prepared and presented professionally and under all the necessary regulations. Newcomer employment is the number one issue for refugees, especially women, so this type of program is very important.
Has your personal or professional experience as a newcomer or working with newcomers informed your work at Together Project in some way? Please explain.
As a former newcomer to Canada, originally from Syria, I still feel all of the challenges newcomers go through. My family and I suffered a lot, especially when we first arrived. Although I didn’t have the language barrier and although I arrived as a skilled immigrant, it was extremely difficult to find our way. We went through a very hard time. Because of these challenges, I work and volunteer to ensure that other newcomers have a better experience than mine. I volunteered at many different places and then my volunteer position at ACCT turned into full time employment. I played a big role in helping thousands of newcomers settle and integrate. I also met Anna from Together Project and we collaborated on the TD Newcomer Urban Nature Access program to introduce newcomers to Toronto’s parks. We saw how these community events allowed newcomers to learn about Canadian culture, society and the local landscape. I believe in Together Project’s work and that’s why I got more involved.
Why is it important to foster social connections between volunteers and Government-Assisted Refugees and refugee claimants in Canada?
From our experience and contrary to the Government Assisted Refugees and the Refugee Claimants, the privately sponsored refugees have more luck integrating in Canada because they have a way to learn about Canadian society and culture through their connection with their sponsors. The sponsors become a big family and help them with everything from housing to employment to learning the language to socially with an introduction to the Canadian lifestyle. Although settlement workers do a good job with this work, it is very different to have a professional caseworker supporting your integration versus a sponsor who does that with care. The sponsors are always in close relation to the sponsored family because they want to help the newcomers feel at home and at the same time understand the culture of the newcomers. It’s a mutual relation.
Government-Assisted Refugees (GARs) and Refugee Claimants have the same issues with learning the language, employment, housing and more, but they don’t have the same facilities that the privately sponsored refugees have through their sponsors. It’s even harder for Refugee Claimants because the GARs know they are sponsored by the government and they know there is a minimum they will get from the government. But Refugee Claimants are in a very difficult situation because they also need legal aid and it’s not always possible to access the necessary legal support. Refugee Claimants have to wait a long time for their hearing date and it might be postponed one or more times. It’s very stressful for them.
Through the Welcome Group program, volunteers can complement the settlement sector’s work and simulate the private sponsors work with Government-Assisted Refugees and Refugee Claimants. Volunteers help newcomers feel at home. It is a life transforming journey for both the volunteers and the newcomers. Volunteers have an inside look at the newcomer experience. They get to know another culture’s perspective and way of thinking and this helps expand the volunteers’ world view and create new possibilities about how to live. The newcomers have a chance to learn about Canada not from a book but from real Canadians who build their understanding of this country one experience at a time.
Why do you think it’s important to have volunteers involved in settlement and not just the government or settlement agencies?
The volunteer experience is not obligatory. It is something you want to do with passion. When you go to an agency as a newcomer, you will be served, because an employee is paid to help you. On the other hand, volunteers are doing so because they love to do it. When you do something with passion, it means you will be successful in doing it. This is what I love most about Canada; the culture of accepting others and welcoming them. I call this, “The Canadian Dream.”
What is your big dream for Together Project over the next five years?
I believe in Together Project and what the staff and Steering Committee are doing. The vision and mission are clear and what TP is doing can be a national and international model for others. Our programs not only support refugees and newcomers but they also support Canadian communities by preparing them to welcome newcomers through voluntary work.
My dream for Together Project can be put in the following words:
Hand in hand, soul to soul
Together we can do it all
Grow your team, set your goal
And to every country send the call
We stand for integration and help all
We advocate humanity and defend all
We at TP are simply a role model to all.