How to host a refugee welcome dinner

Since the first plane of Syrian refugees landed in Canada, people from coast to coast have welcomed them with open arms. We’ve donated furniture and clothing, raised money to sponsor families and introduced them to this country we all call home. But one of the most popular (and fun!) ways to lend support is to host a refugee welcome dinner, where newcomers are invited to share a meal with Canadian hosts at their home or community centre.

Curious about how to host a dinner of your own? While these meals are just like any other dinner party in many ways, there are some important things you should keep in mind.

1. Canadians old and new

When it comes to inviting guests, make sure there’s a diverse group. Sara Shahsiah, who works with settlement agencies in her role as project coordinator at the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants, a United Way agency, suggests inviting not only newcomers but established Canadians, too.

It would be even better if some of the established Canadians have a newcomer background, as well. Many refugees arrive without family members or friends, which can be very isolating. Ensuring that there are Canadians present who have gone through similar experiences not only gives the group things to bond over, but also shows newcomers that there is hope for getting settled in a new country.

2. Don’t assume anything

Refugees have diverse backgrounds and customs. For example, while some Syrians are Muslim and follow certain religious customs, it’s wrong to expect all Syrians to share this identity. “Just as Canadians are such a diverse people, Syrians, and other newcomers, are also very diverse,” says Shahsiah.

Regardless of where the newcomers you’re hosting hail from, Shahsiah recommends asking guests if they have any dietary preferences or allergies. In the case of customs, such as shaking hands or saying a prayer before the meal, follow your guests’ lead. And when in doubt, just ask!

3. Ask before snapping

Many Canadians might not think twice about taking photos and sharing them on social media, but Shahsiah advises asking guests if they’re comfortable with that beforehand, and sharing those preferences with all dinner guests.

“Some refugees still have family back home. Pictures on social media spread quickly, and, if a person is identified, it could put others at risk,” she explains. “Don’t just assume taking pictures is OK.”

4. Keep conversation light

In addition to thinking of some icebreakers or activities, Shahsiah recommends steering all conversations toward cultural commonalities, the future in Canada and fun topics like music, pop culture or hobbies. Avoid asking refugees about their past or experiences in war, no matter how well-intentioned your questions might be.

“We don’t know how much trauma the newcomers who are invited have experienced,” she says. “Those questions can trigger people or cause a situation that the host is not equipped to deal with.”

Instead, show interest in the newcomers’ culture, such as their favourite foods or types of entertainment, rather than their lived experiences as refugees.

Follow these simple guidelines and you’ll pull off a special and welcoming event—and one that benefits all your guests. For refugees who arrive in Canada alone, a welcome dinner can signal a fresh start in their new home. And for established Canadians, a meal shared can help build lasting friendships.

Learn more about how to host a refugee welcome dinner on the Refugees Welcome to Dinner website or connect with an OCASI staff member to discover other volunteer opportunities.

6 things newcomers to Canada need

Imagine trying to do your weekly grocery shop, but the store is totally unfamiliar: you’ve never seen some of these vegetables before, you’re not sure where to find the prices on anything and your favourite brand of, well, everything is nowhere to be found. Moving to a new country has a way of turning even the most everyday tasks into struggles.

Whether it’s social customs, navigating the health-care system, finding a place to live or buying groceries, the people who come here to start new lives face the daunting task of adjusting to Canadian society quickly. (And the 40,000 refugees who sought asylum here in 2016 are likely to face even bigger challenges.) But the six most common things new Canadians struggle with are far less intimidating when neighbours lend a hand. Here’s how to help.

1. Finding community

One of the hardest parts of immigrating to a new home is leaving behind friends and loved ones. Newcomers often feel isolated because of where they live—less-expensive housing is typically farther away from city centres—and building new social circles take time. But connecting people from the same ethnic group or faith is a quick shortcut to new friends, says Claudine Uwangabaye, a social worker and French-class coordinator at ALPA, a non-profit organization that helps resettle newcomers to Canada. Keep your eyes out for welcome events at your local community centre or consider organizing one yourself. Or volunteer with organizations like CSAI, which has a program that matches women who are new to the country with a native Montrealer who can show her around the city—or just hang out for an hour or two.

2. Navigating the grocery store

Grocery stores in North America can be overwhelming, but you can help a newly arrived family out by playing host on their next trip to the store. Connect with newcomers via settlement agencies or charities that support newcomers, like Centre d’appui aux communautés immigrantes (CACI), and plan to go during off-hours so you have plenty of time and space to slowly wander the aisles. Explain products and food labels that may be confusing to someone new to Canada, and point out foods that are typically Canadian, such as maple syrup on pancakes. Better still, host an impromptu cooking class to show newcomers how unfamiliar foods are cooked and enjoyed—and ask for lessons on their food cultures in return.

3. Learning the language

Anyone who has tried to learn a new language knows it’s a hard-won skill. But newcomers have the added challenge of needing communication skills quickly to find work and do everyday tasks like ride the bus. “Some people know French but they want to learn to speak a little bit faster, so I set them up with families who will host them for weekend stays,” says Uwangabaye. “Being immersed in the language is a huge help.”

If English or French is your first language, contact settlement agencies to volunteer as a conversation coach. Many community centres offer spaces to practice speaking skills. Added bonus: you could end up learning a new language, too!

4. Preparing for winter

Canadian snowstorms can be brutal for many newcomers who don’t have the right cold-weather clothes. Before winter starts in Montreal, ALPA begins referring them to agencies and local charities that can provide warm clothing at little or no cost. Donating your gently worn parkas and mitts to settlement agencies and thrift stores can help ensure that newcomers stay warm during the cold months—because it’s much easier to enjoy a real Canadian winter with the right gear.

5. Accessing community resources

Applying for a social insurance number, opening a bank account and even getting their first library cards can be difficult for newcomers who don’t yet speak fluent English or French. Offer to help fill out the correct forms or, even better, accompany your new neighbours to the bank or Service Canada Centre.

6. Having a hobby

Once newcomers are somewhat settled in their new home, Uwangabaye says that figuring out what to do for fun becomes a higher priority on their list. “The thing they say most is ‘We don’t know what to do on the weekends,’ or ‘We have kids and we don’t know where to go,’” she says. Neighbours can help by throwing a block party, or introducing newcomers to zoos, parks, museums and art galleries. And be sure to ask what newcomers used to enjoy doing for fun in their last home. You may even find a common interest to enjoy together.

Would you pass the test?

July 1 is Canada Day! A national statutory holiday to mark the date in 1867 that Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and the Province of Canada were united into a single country.

Across the country, several formal citizenship ceremonies are held each year to officially welcome newcomers. In fact, in 2015-2016 alone, more than 320,000 newcomers arrived in Canada—a 33.3-per-cent increase over the prior year, according to Statistics Canada.

“…Canadians continue to help newcomers establish their lives here with compassion and openness,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a statement on World Refugee Day. “…Their generosity illustrates the spirit of compassion that defines us as Canadians. When we embrace our differences and come together to welcome newcomers, we strengthen our communities in enduring ways.”

To send a warm welcome to Toronto and York Region’s newest citizens, we’d like to give a special shout-out to our network of community agencies that are working in neighbourhoods across our region to support newcomers and refugees as they build a new life in Canada.

But before we go, we thought we’d have a little fun. We’re curious to see if you know what’s on the formal Citizenship Test. Imagine a City invites you to put your own knowledge—including the rights and responsibilities of being a Canadian citizen—to the test.

3 women who inspire us

It’s International Women’s Day! To celebrate, we put together a list of three women who inspire us. These remarkable individuals live right here in Toronto and York Region—changing lives and making our community a better place to live each and every day.

JOSHNA MAHARAJ: Joshna’s appetite for community change is insatiable. As a busy chef with big ideas, the South African native has demonstrated a tremendous passion for turning her culinary interests into community activism. After graduating from McMaster University, Joshna spent time living in India before returning to Toronto to pursue a career in the food industry. Joshna believes passionately that food “is a crucial piece of community building and rejuvenation.” She began her culinary career at The Stop Community Food Centre and also volunteered at FoodShare, a United Way-supported agency, where she helped develop a student nutrition program. At the Scarborough Hospital, for example, she worked tirelessly to overhaul the patient menu to include healthier, more culturally-appropriate options—the first project of its kind in Ontario. These days she’s busy working on her vision to bring large-scale change to the healthcare, rehabilitation and education sectors so that people can access fresh, local food when they visit places like hospitals and universities. “Food is such a perfect common denominator,” says Joshna. “It nourishes our bodies, but it also nourishes our spirit. There is a connection and a conviviality that comes from gathering in a kitchen, community garden or at a table. These are things that really give people a sense of belonging.” We love Joshna’s passion for her work and her tireless efforts to bring people together around food. We can’t wait to see what she cooks up next!

CHEYANNE RATNAM: At just 14, Cheyanne experienced hidden homelessness, couch-surfing with friends after she was forced to leave home because of family conflict and abuse. Cheyanne, who is Sri Lankan, was eventually placed into the care of the Children’s Aid Society where she remained during high school, yet managed to excel. Despite struggling with homelessness and a number of other barriers—including mental health issues like depression—Cheyanne was determined to build a better life for herself—and others just like her. Today, she’s thriving, after graduating from university and pursuing a busy career in the social services sector where she advocates on behalf of homeless newcomer youth and young people in and out of the child welfare and adoption system. One of her proudest accomplishments? In 2014, she co-founded What’s the Map—an advocacy and research group that has started a cross-sectoral conversation on how to remove barriers and better meet the needs of newcomer homeless youth. Cheyanne is also a public speaker for the Children’s Aid Foundation and a coordinator at Ryerson University for an education symposium for youth in care. And despite a busy schedule, she still finds time to mentor young people experiencing homelessness and other barriers. We’re inspired by Cheyanne’s remarkable resiliency and passion to help young people. And we’re not the only ones! Last year, her alma mater, York University, recognized her with a prestigious Bryden Award that celebrates remarkable contributions to the university community and beyond. “I hope to send a message to young people who are facing barriers that they are not alone and that it’s ‘OK to not be OK’. I want them to know that we’re here to help. The present circumstances should not define who you are or who you’ll become.”

SUSAN MCISAAC: We may be a little biased, but we think our recently-retired President and CEO, Susan McIsaac, is an extraordinarily inspiring individual who has dedicated her life’s work to championing social justice. During her 18 years at United Way (six years at the helm), Susan was a key architect of United Way’s transformation from trusted fundraiser to community mobilizer and catalyst for impact. She’s an inspiring example of a bold and compassionate leader who cares deeply about making a difference in the lives of people and families across our region. “We have an opportunity—and a responsibility—to make sure the kind of disenfranchisement that has cracked the foundation of other places doesn’t jeopardize our home,” explains Susan. “To make that happen, we need to re-commit ourselves to ensuring that anyone and everyone who works hard can get ahead.” It’s this very sense of commitment that continues to reverberate throughout the community services sector and beyond. So much so, in fact, that just last month, Susan was awarded the TRBOT’s Toronto Region Builder Award for her significant contribution to improving communities, and in 2014 was named one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women by WXN.

Would you pass the test?

FlagJuly 1 is Canada Day!  A national statutory holiday to mark the date in 1867 that Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and the Province of Canada were united into a single country.

Across the country, several formal citizenship ceremonies are held each year to officially welcome some of the approximately 250,000 newcomers who arrive in Canada annually.

“Canada is celebrated around the world for its freedom, democracy, inclusion and diversity,” Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister John McCallum says in this press release. “This Canada Day, I encourage you to come to one of our Citizenship Ceremonies to celebrate being and becoming Canadian—and to welcome the newest members of our family. More than one in five Canadians were born outside Canada. This is our strength and a source of great pride. Please join us in celebrating it.”

United Way would also like to send a warm welcome to Toronto and York Region’s newest citizens! And we’d like to give a special shout-out to our network of community agencies that are working in neighbourhoods across our region to support newcomers and refugees as they build a new life in Canada.

DSC_3560

The Khalils are looking forward to starting their new life in Canada.

Before we go, we thought we’d have a little fun. We’re curious to see if you know what’s on the formal Citizenship Test. Imagine a City invites you to put your own knowledge—including the rights and responsibilities of being a Canadian citizen— to the test.

Changemakers to watch: Dr. Meb Rashid

Meet Dr. Meb Rashid. He’s the medical director of Toronto’s only in-hospital refugee clinic who has dedicated his career to serving “the world’s heroes.” With his lean, but mighty team, Meb is changing the way care is delivered in the city—and ensuring a refugee’s new life in Canada begins with a healthy start.

Meb

WHO: Meb has been at the helm of Women’s College Hospital’s Crossroads Clinic—which he also helped establish—since 2011. Since then, his team has provided crucial care to nearly 2,000 refugees while helping them effectively navigate a new health-care system in an entirely new country. But Meb’s impact on refugee health extends far beyond Crossroads Clinic’s walls. He’s been a go-to source for connecting newcomers with social services agencies—including United Way–supported COSTI and Access Alliance—to provide access to the wide-ranging supports needed to settle and integrate into a new community. He was also on the steering committee of Canadian Collaboration for Immigrant and Refugee Health (CCIRH) and has even brought together clinicians in a common cause of caring through refugee-focused health networks.

WHY: Meb, who immigrated to Canada from Tanzania when he was young, says he has the “best job in the city” working with newcomers. And we wholeheartedly agree with the importance of his work. Providing timely, accessible supports—include trauma counselling and  language services—to newly-arrived refugees and immigrants is a vital part of United Way’s work helping individuals settle and integrate. “Refugees are an amazing group of people to work with,” he says. “Many have lived through horrific issues, but they arrive in Canada with the desire to put their lives back together. It’s a testament to human resilience.” So then it’s no surprise Meb has made it his personal mission to meet with refugees soon after they arrive in Canada—building trust with patients to ensure their health remains a top priority despite juggling the demands of settling in a new country. For example: finding employment, enrolling children in school or navigating the transit system. The result: newcomers avoiding obstacles they would normally face—from unnecessary emergency room visits to language barriers. In large part due to a dedicated staff with training in tropical medicine and infectious disease, as well as knowledge of the refugee immigration process. “Keeping people healthy helps facilitate their integration,” adds Meb. “It’s essential to starting a new life in Canada.”

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Dr. Meb Rashid with the Crossroads Clinic team.

WHAT’S NEXT: Meb is excited about the future of Crossroads. Not only is the clinic having an impact on the lives of newcomers, but it’s giving emerging practitioners invaluable experience as a leading teaching setting. “We’re starting to produce research that allows us to guide other clinics in the community that perhaps don’t see refugees in the same numbers we do,” explains Meb. “We’re hopeful this evidence will help other physicians better serve refugees and their nuanced needs in a more precise way.” This invaluable insight will undoubtedly help physicians and social service providers alike better understand and respond to the important issues that confront refugees and immigrants.

Want to support United Way’s work making change possible for newcomers and refugees in our communities? Donate today.