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Filling the gaps for refugees and asylum seekers in the GTA

November 08, 2023 by Vawn Himmelsbach Special to the Star

Adeena Niazi, executive director of Afghan Women’s Organization Refugee and Immigrant Services, stands with her arms crossed in front of an evergreen tree. She has short brown hair and is wearing a white turtleneck and green blazer.
Having been displaced, often after of persecution and war, refugees arrive in Canada without established networks that can offer support said Adeena Niazi, executive director of Afghan Women’s Organization Refugee and Immigrant Services. “And this leads to further discrimination, racism, exploitation, unequal and unfair treatment.”

Photo by Daria Perevezentsev

Ensuring newcomers have the supports they need to succeed and thrive once they arrive in Canada

The challenges for refugees and newcomers run deep, from dealing with resettlement in an already inequitable housing market, to facing multiple barriers when applying their education and work experience to the marketplace.

They’re also at higher risk of experiencing poverty compared to the general population because of barriers to integration, such as language fluency, discrimination in the labour market and limited social networks. Certain groups of immigrants, such as those without status, are further marginalized because they’re ineligible for federally funded settlement supports.

At the same time, the world is seeing an increase in forced migration; by the end of 2022, more than 108 million people were forcibly displaced, according to the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Refugees. This surge is related to everything from conflict and climate change to persecution and human rights violations.

In Canada, the pandemic resulted in a backlog of applications. “Now we have more people coming, but there’s also no doubt that with conflict around the world, more and more people are coming from war-torn countries,” said Ruth Crammond, vice-president of community investment and development with United Way Greater Toronto (UWGT).

UWGT was involved on the frontlines when waves of Syrian, Afghan and Ukrainian refugees arrived in Canada — and now, with those fleeing war-torn African countries. Aside from meeting their basic needs, “they need social and emotional support — many of them are coming out of traumatic experiences,” said Crammond.

Addressing basic needs: How CAFCAN is helping asylum seekers from Africa

Canada processed almost 60,000 applications from asylum seekers in the first half of 2023, the highest number in the past 10 years. This is on top of the 500,000 immigrants the federal government has targeted for this year.

But over the summer, Toronto’s homelessness and housing crisis clashed with an emerging settlement crisis, as more and more refugee claimants — many from African countries such as Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda who were fleeing war, violence, climate change and persecution based on their sexual and gender identities — arrived in dire need.

The number of asylum seekers in Toronto’s shelter system had grown by 500 per cent in the previous 20 months, from 530 in September 2021 to more than 2,800 this May.

On June 1, when the City of Toronto began referring newcomers away from at-capacity shelters — with refugee and newcomer claimants accounting for 30 per cent of shelter beds in Peel and Toronto — many ended up outside of municipal offices on Peter Street, provided with makeshift supports from faith-based and grassroots service agencies as well as settlement and health services.

In response, the City of Toronto, UWGT and Black community-led organizations established the African Resettlement Emergency Support Fund. This included Caribbean African Canadian (CAFCAN) Social Services, a registered charitable organization.

“This summer, CAFCAN pitched in after asylum seekers were transported from downtown to Revivaltime Tabernacle. CAFCAN was onsite the evening the buses were dropping people off.  We provided a few gift cards and ensured there was on-site support,” said Floydeen Charles-Fridal, executive director of CAFCAN. “We worked in collaboration with other community-based agencies to form a network of support.”

Charles-Fridal said some of the challenges that asylum seekers face in the GTA right now include finding shelter, processing applications for refugee status and obtaining work permits, as well as taking care of their basic personal care needs.

“Our best intelligence comes from the agencies on the ground,” Crammond said. “The agencies know in real time what the issues are. What are the gaps, where are people struggling? Because they are going to see it before the data shows it.”

In August, UWGT announced $250,000 in grants to support the leadership of Black-led and Black-serving community service organizations working on the frontlines with African refugee claimants and asylum seekers across the GTA. As part of this funding, UWGT is aiming to catalyze the additional support and public participation essential in creating sustainable solutions for African refugee claimants and asylum seekers.

CAFCAN is continuing to help by working in collaboration with other agencies and business to provide supports, said Charles-Fridal. For example, CAFCAN offers one-on-one mental health supports, and its employment services team assists with resumes and arranging volunteer opportunities that prepare individuals to work in Canada.

Beyond basic necessities: How the Afghan Women’s Organization is building community

Having been displaced, often after years or even generations of persecution and war, refugees arrive to Canada without established networks, neighbourhoods or community groups that can provide them with much-needed support systems.

“There is a difference in how they are treated, whether in the rental market while trying to acquire housing, in dental offices, hospitals, social service agencies, food banks or their children’s schools—they are labelled as refugees, not as Canadians, but lesser than,” said Adeena Niazi, executive director of Afghan Women’s Organization (AWO) Refugee and Immigrant Services. “And this leads to further discrimination, racism, exploitation, unequal and unfair treatment.”

Women and their families seeking refuge from war and persecution in Canada usually come with the intergenerational trauma of severe and diverse forms of violence, as well as the trauma of displacement and forced migration, which can cause profound mental health challenges, said Niazi.

AWO offers a wide range of programs designed to empower refugees and help them build better lives in their new home.

“Our service users are predominantly women and their families who have experienced war, violence and displacement. Their migration experience is often long and tumultuous, often including years in refugee camps in neighbouring countries or displacement as refugees in other countries,” said Niazi.

Those experiences are often fraught with danger and discrimination.

“Our staff are fully equipped with cultural competencies and trauma-based service provision. A vast majority of our staff have lived experience as refugees and can relate well to the refugees’ needs,” said Niazi. “We have social activities, storytelling sessions and leisurely trips for people to feel comfortable speaking about their encounters enroute to Canada or back home, or just to sit back and listen to other peoples’ experiences.”

The UWGT has been a steadfast partner of AWO for many years, supporting critical programs and services for the integration, settlement and empowerment of refugees to Canada.

United Way funding supports a range of programs that meet both the immediate needs of immigrants and refugees, as well as support programs with a focus on building community connections to enable longer-term integration and participation.

“These conflicts around the world are not abating — they’re escalating, and we need to be prepared,” said Crammond. “That’s why it’s important to give, to help a person, help a family with their basic needs, on a humanitarian level.”

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