Refugees resettling in Canada have the daunting challenge of navigating a new country. Part of this challenge is forming connections within the community; a task made more difficult during the pandemic. The Together Project, an initiative of the charitable foundation MakeWay, aims to empower refugees during their transition. It includes programs such as the Welcome Group model, which connects government assisted refugees and refugee claimants with volunteers in hopes of forming a more welcoming and integrated community.
The Together Project was founded in 2016, and since then has expanded to 700 volunteers, which have been matched with 650 newcomers.1 Anna Hill and Andrew Lustzyk, the co-founders, share their thoughts and experiences in the following interview.
What are the aims of Together Project?
Andrew: The aim is to build self-sufficiency through providing social connections to newcomers. One of the biggest gaps that exist institutionally for a lot ofrefugee and refugee claimant newcomers, is that in being new to Canada, they do not have the access to the same social connections that other forms of newcomers might. The aim is to provide social connections in a way that empowers them to build their own self-sufficiency. The idea is not to create a charity group, but a surrogate group of allies and advocates that can help newcomers navigate their arrival to Canada.
What challenges do you see refugee newcomers facing?
Andrew: It varies for individual families, circumstances of their arrival, and settlement to Canada. One of the top challenges we see is lack of social capital and connections. There are some observations we can make more specific to broader demographic groups. For example, for refugee claimants, understanding and accessing services can be a huge challenge, given the comparatively limited institutional support compared to other groups of newcomers. Government assisted refugees typically arrive with higher vulnerability and lower levels of English. You can also imagine that building social connections, finding work, and even feeling safe or comfortable in your new home can be affected by a language barrier.
How has the refugee settlement process changed during the pandemic?
Andrew: As with a lot of other Canadians, one of the biggest challenges is understanding what it means for services. During the pandemic the Service Ontario offices have closed. This caused an additional challenge because now newcomers may be wondering, “how do I access information that is important for me and my family about my financial or healthcare situation?” Therefore, having a team of people who look at and assist the refugees’ specific needs has been proven to be effective and helpful.
Another challenge is social isolation. You are even more restricted by having to stay indoors. Thus, having a window to meet new people, even virtually, has meant a lot.
Anna: The whole sector has been changing to new models of digital settlement during the pandemic and so there is this period of adaptation. Making sure that newcomers have the technology and the digital literacy to access resources and programs that are being piloted for the first time, is important. I think that is another way that volunteers have been very helpful, in supporting the inclusion of newcomers digitally.
How do you feel the community, in general, can better support refugee newcomers?
Andrew: When we talk about a welcoming community, we talk about integration being a two-way street. While we try to cater programming and services to newcomers, we should also look at ways to actively engage members of their community. We often hear from volunteers that they have not previously had the opportunity to engage with newcomers in a meaningful, long-term way. We are providing an avenue for people to actively participate as opposed to relying on institutions and governments to do the work of integration or waiting for newcomers to integrate themselves.
Anna: I think providing a dedicated group of volunteers who can act as allies, guides, and eventually friends, is important in terms of mitigating social isolation. It is imperative to center newcomer voices in leadership, in program design, and in communications right now. I think newcomers are bringing incredible skills, resilience, strength, and insight. In terms of evolving this concept of digital settlement, it is critical that newcomers are at the center of these innovations. Often our best insights are coming from the newcomers we are serving.
What changes and challenges has the program faced this past year?
Andrew: Our program was designed around building social connections, largely in-person, and suddenly had to shift to an entirely digital format. We really had to work to adapt the model to still be effective online. We started with a need’s assessment for our newcomer program participants and volunteers to determine how the needs have changed. Luckily, we have an iterative model in our program delivery so that every match is informed by the match that preceded it.
The fundamental truth is that when you are talking about building social connections, nothing is going to replace in-person interactions. That is one of the highest and best forms of building social connections, in terms of overcoming language barriers and benefiting from regular, in-person proximity to build trust. Due to the infinite patience of our volunteers and newcomer participants, we had a lot of success with the adaptation. We also recognize that there are limitations to how much you can rely on online communication for building those social connections. You cannot go to the library to show newcomers how to get a library card, play sports in a park, or have shared meals which was the foundation for so many of our matches prior to the pandemic. There is a more limited range of opportunities to engage in, but we have learned from that and shifted to what works best online.
Anna: We have essentially been in the midst of a remote social support pilot program over the last year. Creating good feedback loops between our program participants has been important in order to share new successes and challenges. This open communication has been very important as it has allowed us to share resources while the sector has been in flux. Engaging with previous matches that have gone or are going well allows us to continue to improve the program for future matches.
Illustration by Emilie Muszczak
In what ways have you seen welcome groups connecting?
Anna: Both our newcomers and volunteers in our matches have shown so much creativity and ingenuity in terms of how to build social connections online. We have a number of matches that connect every week. They typically will connect either by phone or a video platform. Almost all matches also provide on-demand support, typically through text. I am supervising matches where people are cooking together, training towards running a 5k, and starting a book club. We have volunteers who are engaged in reading stories to the children in the families, and there is a lot of innovative language practice. As well, we have a lot of matches focused on employment.
Andrew: We are learning a lot more from volunteers and newcomers than we are imparting in this field. But one thing that is important is the consistency - the idea that there is someone who is regularly checking in on you, especially if you are isolated. It is meaningful for a lot of newcomers, knowing that “if I have an issue, there is someone who I can talk to.”
Edited by Elizabeth Karvasarki & Emily Mastragostino