Hope and a new home for refugees

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Mario Calla
Executive Director,
COSTI Immigrant Services

Our guest blogger this week is Mario Calla, Executive Director of COSTI Immigrant Services, a United Way-funded agency that provides programs and services to help newcomers and refugees settle in Canada. Mario is also a member of United Way’s Campaign Cabinet and sits on the steering committee of Lifeline Syria, an organization that recruits, trains and assists sponsor groups to welcome and support Syrian refugees coming to Canada.

Somewhere in Lebanon, Dima’s brother is desperate for luck to turn his way. He’s there with his wife and three young children. Not long ago, they managed a dangerous escape from Syria. Now they’re stuck in limbo as they search in vain for some way to get to Canada. Dima’s brother heard his family might find safe passage through Turkey — but they were forced to turn back when it became too dangerous. They returned to Lebanon, where they are right now. Still waiting. Still hopeful.

It’s a journey Dima knows only too well. And it’s a story I hear so often it has become painfully routine. At COSTI, I meet dozens of refugees every day. People fleeing Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan. The fact they are prepared to take such risks speaks to how hopeless things have become for them.

For people like Dima and her brother, escaping from suffering and persecution is just the first step in a long journey. When they arrive here in their new country, they encounter a new series of challenges. Thankfully, Canadians are compassionate. People are sponsoring families. Bay Street companies are fundraising to support their settlement. Groups of lawyers are offering pro bono assistance to help refugees with immigration paperwork. Our community is coming together like never before.

At COSTI, we’re doing everything we can too—alongside a network of United Way agencies that helps newcomers in every corner of Toronto and York Region. The Ralph Chiodo Family Immigrant Reception Centre is the first home in Canada to over 17,000 refugees since it first opened its doors 26 years ago. We’ve been one of the first places refugees come when they land here in Canada. Some need medical attention. Others have issues that go beyond the physical—they need counselling and support to overcome post-traumatic stress. Everyone needs shelter, clothing, food—and friendship.

As refugees begin to settle into their new life, it’s our job to help them get their feet planted firmly on the ground. We help them find a place to live, open a bank account and apply for a social insurance number. We make sure their kids get enrolled in school. COSTI connects newcomers with employment supports and settlement services to help ensure their long-term success. Ultimately, our goal is to ensure everyone has everything they need. And it’s working. We’ve managed to help thousands of refugee families get the best start for their new life in Canada.

But our work isn’t done. Like so many others, Dima’s brother is determined to make his way here — and my wife and I are just as determined. We, with the support of friends, have applied to privately sponsor Dima’s brother and his family. Dima, my friends and family and the family of United Way agencies will be ready to greet them when they arrive. Working together, we can extend our embrace to all refugees who arrive in our country in search of a better life.

Visit United Way’s Facebook page to learn how you can help refugees and newcomers get the best start in their new life.