What is your role at Together Project? My name is Leith Bishop and I am a volunteer on the Together Project Steering Committee. I was invited to join in late 2019, after admiring the initiative since it started a few years ago.I have a personal and professional interest in immigration success, so I was flattered to be invited to join Together Project in a formal capacity.
Please tell me a little bit about your background and how you got involved. I worked for many years at the Institute for Canadian Citizenship (ICC). My work with ICC focused on creating programs and events for new citizens – people who are further along in their immigration experience.
Canada is made better and stronger by immigrantion. But I believe we all have a responsibility to make immigration a success. It’s not just the responsibility of the newcomer to “become” Canadian. We need our communities to be inviting and welcoming, which means the receiving community has as much responsibility as the people who are arriving. So, I’m interested in how we can accelerate that feeling of inclusion and belonging for newcomers, and create inclusive and welcoming communities.
Having done a lot of work from the perspective of new citizens who have been in Canada for a number of years, I’m interested in the experience of people who have just arrived. That’s the sweet spot for Together Project. It’s one of the few initiatives in the country that is focused on complementing the work of the settlement sector and government through a volunteer program that connects refugees with their new communities.
Has your personal or professional experience as a newcomer or working with newcomers informed your work at Together Project in some way? Please explain. I don’t have a personal experience as a newcomer. My people have been in Canada for generations. But this fact has definitely informed my work. I come from the perspective of someone who recognizes that Canada is better and stronger through diversity. Coming from my experience of a somewhat monolithic, mid-century Canada, I recognize that our country is more vibrant and exciting because of our success with immigration. I believe Canada’s wealth lies in its human capital and our diversity makes us richer and stronger.
Why is it important to foster social connections between volunteers and Government-Assisted Refugees and refugee claimants in Canada? The days of waiting a generation for an immigrant or refugee to feel a sense of belonging are over. These days, we need methods and means that really accelerate integration and inclusion. By integration, I mean the nuts and bolts of arrival – finding schools, a place to live, employment and language learning. When these essential priorities are met, this opens the door for a sense of inclusion, a feeling of belonging. Inclusion is a continuum of experience that unfolds over time but if people feel shut out of their communities; if they feel like “the other”, then they’ll struggle to reach that feeling of belonging.
Canada is lucky that we have always had a strong sense of supporting one another. That needs to continue as our communities become more diverse. Together Project’s Welcome Group program is a practical opportunity for an everyday Canadian to offer a newcomer household six months of social support. While the settlement work of the government is essential, the interpersonal connections between volunteers and newcomers are unique. No one is better positioned to help a newcomer succeed than a community volunteer who already knows how to navigate neighbourhood services from healthcare to transit to schools, to employment opportunities or banks. In addition to sharing knowledge and experience, volunteers can also share their wider social networks, broadening a newcomer’s community even further.
Of all of Canada’s immigrants, refugees are most in need of this extra support. Anyone who has lived in or travelled to another country knows how disorienting it can be to find your way around a new city. Imagine those same challenges plus arriving with low levels of language and literacy, and trauma. We create a match with Canadian volunteers who support this transition.
Do you think volunteer engagement and corporate engagement in refugee integration is helping to build stronger, more integrated communities? Please explain. There are huge benefits for Canadians to participate in programs like the Welcome Group program or newcomer community events. There is something so tangible and empowering about making a difference in the lives of people you come to know well. Volunteers learn about the challenges refugee newcomers are facing from poverty to health to stereotyping to language barriers to discrimination. Witnessing newcomers’ resilience in the face of these challenges is inspiring and transformative. Volunteers help newcomers understand a community that feels foreign to them. The responsibility for inclusion is shared among all the volunteers in the Welcome Group. The responsibility of making people feel like they belong is no longer left just to arrivals but it is also the responsibility of the receiving community, whether that is a community of corporate volunteers, a sports team, a faith group or a group of neighbours and friends.
The experience of connecting with newcomer refugees goes way beyond the traditional volunteer experience of handing out t-shirts, collecting signatures or supporting a marathon. It changes people who volunteer in ways they cannot imagine. While Together Project provides training and support, it’s really up to the volunteers and newcomers to create their own schedule and activities. There’s lots of room for volunteers to put their problem solving and project management skills to use. Also, by getting to know people from another culture, volunteers expand their worldview and challenge their perspectives. It’s a very unique volunteer opportunity.
What is your big dream for Together Project over the next five years? My big dream for Together Project is to prove that these kinds of social connections make a difference for newcomers and for volunteers. It takes some time. You can’t evaluate the impact of the Welcome Group program in a month, but over the course of a few years, we want to demonstrate that the program makes a difference to the well-being of refugee newcomers, especially given the challenging circumstances of their arrival. We also want to capture what it means for volunteers to welcome vulnerable newcomers to Canada. Is the program reducing prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination? Once we demonstrate that the program is creating a more cohesive, more resilient Canada where immigration continues to be seen as a positive force, economically, politically, and socially, then we hope the Welcome Group program will expand in Canada and eventually become a model for other countries.