In April, the DJC Social Justice Committee was contacted by the Welcome Project, a private sponsoring group working with government-assisted refugees (GARS). Unlike the privately-sponsored initiatives, there is little one-to-one assistance for GARS.

When they reached out to the DJC, eight volunteers stepped forward. The group is working with a small family of three: mother, father and a one and a half year old boy. Below is “Part 2” of this blog post about some of the key issues facing these new Canadian immigrants as we help them settle into their new home. We will continue to share this journey as it unfolds… (posted by Sharron Kusiar, the new Chair of the DJC’s Social Justice Committee, and a member of our Welcome Project team. Missed Part 1? Read it here.)

Imagine the stress of moving to a place where you have no language, few friends, frequently no extended family, and little knowledge of local customs. While families are grateful for the peace they have found in Canada, they are often lonely and miss the familiar surroundings, and especially family and friends, “back home.”

We were encouraged to let them know we were available not just for emergencies and concrete tasks, but as friends who care about them.  My partner and I invited them into our home the first night they left the hotel where the government had been housing them as their new apartment was not yet ready. They were so incredibly appreciative and really wanted to be able to give back, in spite of their relative lack of means. When they saw me doing some gardening work on my front lawn, they were thrilled to pick up some gardening tools and help me out. This is very much part of the great hospitality and warmth in their culture and giving them the opportunity to give back also allows them to express themselves beyond language barriers.

We were also counselled to be alert to stress, and any emotional crises.  In their culture (as in North America) there is often a stigma attached to seeking psychological help, so we have tried to ensure they have someone to talk to in Arabic about any crisis.

Most importantly, we’ve tried to include some fun things we can do with the family, especially since a small child is involved – playgrounds, picnics, museums (the ROM has a great play area for kids), and outings in general that aren’t just from a long list of “tasks” can lighten the load for these isolated families.

Other key issues we learned about and items we made sure were in place included:

Cell Phones:  The main source of anxiety and trauma for this family and for so many others, is the fact they have left behind family in Syria and other countries as well. The stress of this can be somewhat alleviated by the family having a cell phone with an international internet calling plan that will allow them to be in touch with their families. WIND Mobile is offering free refurbished phones with phone calls, text, and unlimited data for two years. This must be done through Lifeline Syria, and is important to do immediately, as there is a wait list. We made sure this was done within the first week we were working with the family.

Car/Baby Seats:  It is essential that any volunteer transporting a child have a car seat in their car, both for safety and to prevent a $1,000 fine if stopped. We made sure this was provided immediately to the family who have a one and a half-year old son. We also made sure to leave the car seat with the family as different volunteers are transporting them around in different vehicles. This way, they always have the appropriate car seat on hand.

Cigarettes:  Many refugees smoke, and there is usually not much stigma attached to this in their country of origin, unlike here in North America. For these people, smoking can be helpful in reducing stress, and it is ill-advised to ask a newcomer to quit straight out, given his or her stress level. That said, the primary health provider should be asked to address the issue of second-hand smoke for children, and volunteers should be clear about the cost of cigarettes in Canada. Many have arrived with $3 packages of cigarettes, unaware of the cost here.

Banking & Credit Cards:  Pragmatically speaking, one of the first things we focused on was to help the family install a banking app on their phone so they could check their account balance. In addition, some of the government-sponsored refugees have been given Visa cards with a $500 limit. We were advised by the Welcome Project group to actually discourage the family from activating any credit cards until they have an income. There are unfortunately numerous stories of newcomer families accruing high credit card charges, which could take years to overcome.

Missed Part 1 of this blog post?  Read it here…

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