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Imagine Canada

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The Sector in Action: Charities' Role in Settling Refugees

Tuesday, February 9, 2016
Case Study
Sector News

The Syrian refugee crisis emerged into the public consciousness last summer resulting in public outcry. The Government of Canada announced an expedited Syrian refugee initiative, and within weeks, the countdown was on to prepare for the welcome and settlement of thousands of Syrian refugees.

Charities and nonprofits are at the frontline of this response, working alongside all levels of government and the private sector. Newcomer and settlement service organizations are leading these efforts, with organizations from other sub-sectors also playing important roles. Imagine Canada spoke with four sector leaders about their involvement in supporting Syrian refugees and asked how our sector can continue to support this work into the future.

Newcomer settlement agencies: At the frontline

The newcomer and settlement service sector’s ability to quickly respond to Canada’s largest refugee resettlement plan since 1980 has highlighted its sophisticated nature and expansive networks. Debbie Douglas, Executive Director at Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI) notes that the sophistication of the sector isn’t news to those within the sector, yet the current situation has brought it to the attention of others. Despite this, the dramatic volume of arrivals within a short period of time is presenting challenges for some organizations as they ramp up to meet the increased demand on services.

Newcomer and settlement service agencies are providing integrated services adapted to meet individual needs. Queenie Choo, CEO at S.U.C.C.E.S.S., a multi-service organization serving the Lower Mainland, explains that refugees can have different needs depending on the program through which they arrive in Canada. Choo provides the example that the settlement experiences of privately sponsored refugees vary depending on their sponsorship agreement holders, who may have extensive or limited connection to community and knowledge of supports. Organizations like S.U.C.C.E.S.S. act as cultural brokers, preventing newcomers from falling through gaps, and bridging them to the services that will help them to be independent and truly integrated within the community.

Ratna Omidvar, Chair at Lifeline Syria describes how the charitable and nonprofit sector is ideally situated to provide supports, given its record of success at welcoming refugees to Canada. The sector helps meet a number of needs including food, clothing, housing, transportation, language support, and medical care. Omidvar adds that it’s also central to providing legal advice, community engagement, and job placement. While newcomer and settlement service organizations are at the frontline of this response, organizations from other subsectors have important roles to play. Meeting these needs necessitates collaborative approaches, as Choo says, “one organization cannot do it all.” Collective approaches are integral to ensuring the long-term support of newcomers.

A need for collaborative approaches

Photo from S.U.C.C.E.S.S.

Organizations are leveraging their strengths and working across sectors to enhance the response to Syrian refugees. The Welcome Fund for Syrian Refugees, initiated by Manulife and Community Foundations of Canada, is an example of a cross-sectorial collaboration that builds on the strengths of each partner. The fund will support local strategies across Canada to build and strengthen the housing and resettlement efforts for Syrian refugees, working in partnership with Canada’s network of 191 community foundations and leading agencies. Ian Bird, President of Community Foundations of Canada (CFC) states, “We as community foundations are not experts in the resettlement space. However, we are experts and leaders in Canadian communities, making us well-suited to work alongside experienced organizations to help direct contributions of the Welcome Fund to where there is greatest need.” Douglas highlights how the accelerated response to this exceptional situation has forced collaboration among levels of government and the private and nonprofit sectors in ways that may otherwise not happen.

Mainstream organizations are adapting their services for newcomers in a variety of ways. Douglas describes how some mainstream organizations offer their services within a settlement service organization on an ongoing basis. The goal of this practice is to reduce barriers to support, limiting the need for refugees to repeat their story every time they access a new service. This is powerful, particularly in the context of trauma or other challenges. Furthermore, the location and set-up of programs often reflect funding structures, and as Douglas asserts, service users should be able to access services without needing to know who funds what.

For organizations seeking to establish new programs to support Syrian refugees or other newcomers, Choo suggests first looking at available community resources to assess service gaps and reduce the likelihood of service duplication. Omidvar notes that the Ministry of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship’s resource on newcomer and settlement service organizations by province and territory is a good place to start. Bird further shares, “Many organizations [do] incredible work in the area of resettlement and refugee support, and we look to them for their knowledge and leadership in this space and aim to support them in the best ways we can.” The settlement sector is incredibly well established and organizations can refer to those with expertise.

Ensuring long-term support

The Canadian public has overwhelmingly supported efforts to welcome and settle Syrian refugees; however a broader context of issues often goes unaddressed. Douglas explains that while there is this real sense that Canadians want to help, there is also an underbelly that we need to pay attention to. “We need to focus on the less welcoming aspects of our community and not allow them to fester.” This highlights the need to talk about and address xenophobia and islamophobia in our communities, and acknowledge that our responses to refugee crises can be selective. It’s important to consider how these factors inform the levels of support received by newcomer and settlement service agencies. This will be an important consideration as organizations continue to support refugees in the months and years to come.

There is a role for all of us to play in educating our communities about the meaningful contributions we each make regardless of how we got here. As Omidvar states, “refugees have consistently achieved success in Canada over the long term – just as they benefit from finding refuge here, we benefit from their skills and ambition. They become part of the national fabric and over time, they or their children will thrive.” Organizations of all sorts play a role in supporting newcomers in our communities. Whether it means continuing to provide existing services, adapting, or creating new programs to meet emerging needs. As a collective and as community members, we can harness this momentum and enhance service provision for current and future newcomers.

Community Foundations of Canada is the national network for Canada’s 191 community foundations.

Lifeline Syria recruits, trains and assists private sponsor groups, with the goal of helping 1,000 Syrian refugees to resettle in the GTA over the next two years.

The Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI) acts as a collective voice for immigrant-serving agencies and to coordinate response to shared needs and concerns.

S.U.C.C.E.S.S. is a multicultural, multi-service agency assisting people at all stages of their Canadian experience.

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Submitted by John Ryerson on
After having a government that tried to discredit charities and attack them through the CRA it is useful to see the enormous impact of charitable work on just the refugee file alone. Charities are a very good measure of the strength of a democracy through their engagement, inclusion and action to build a stronger society. I look forward to seeing the cross sectoral lessons learned on refugees being applied to eliminating chronic homelessness and other issues that are within our capacity to fix if we all work together.

Submitted by Rob Donelson on
Like Community Foundations of Canada, Wilfrid Laurier University is also not an expert in refugee settlement. However, we have had excellent and collaborative partnerships with both the YMCA and Mennonite Central Committee in sponsoring three families. Our campus community has provided overwhelming and generous support for sponsorship, and is deeply grateful for the expertise of the Y and MCC in helping us respond to this major humanitarian crisis. Collaboration is key, and the charitable sector is at its best when working in partnership.

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