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.

Who inspired us in 2016?

The holidays are almost over. But it’s not too late for us to squeeze in our annual list of stories that inspire us—an Imagine a City tradition! We think you’ll agree that the incredible people highlighted below are a lovely reminder of everyday acts of kindness that add up to big change for people and families across our region.

Do you have a story you think should be on the list? Share in the comments section and let us know!


Carly Goldhar (left) and Charley Rangel of the Odd Sox Project.

1. Putting their best foot forward: Carly Goldhar and Charley Rangel, both 10, are the perfect match. The best friends co-founded the Odd-Sox Project last November after learning how important a pair of socks can be to someone experiencing homelessness. The girls have organized sock drives throughout the region, collecting gently used socks—whether matching or not—and donating them to shelters in the GTA. “It puts a smile on our faces. It’s good to know that we can help people in need,” Charley told The Thornhill Liberal. “We just want to inspire people to be themselves, while also giving back,” added Carly. To date, the girls have donated more than 30,000 pairs of socks and have even started their own sock line. Way to go, Charley and Carly. You really know how to step up for our community!


U of T student, Tarek Bin Yameen, says the eye clinics would not be possible without the help of non-profit organization, Mes Amis, and Dr. Ike Ahmed and the team at Prism Eye Institute.

2. Making the transition to a new country a little clearer: Tarek Bin Yameen and his family came to Canada as immigrants after the civil war broke out in Yemen. Now a second-year medical student, Tarek is using his personal experience to help other newcomers get the best start in Canada. With the help of St. Michael’s Hospital staff ophthalmologist, Dr. Myrna Lichter, the U of T student is organizing a series of free vision clinics for Syrian refugees. To date, nearly 500 people have been treated, ensuring their health remains a top priority despite juggling the demands of settling in a new country. “When I see these newcomers in Canada, when I see the children, they remind me of my own personal experiences that I had as a kid,” Tarek told CBC. “This country gave me an opportunity to come here and study here and I’m paying it forward.”


Joe Roberts (right) is joined by a crowd of supporters on his Push for Change journey.

3. A journey to end youth homelessness: In 1989, Joe Roberts was battling a drug addiction, homeless and pushing a shopping cart through the streets of Vancouver. Today, he’s still pushing a shopping cart—but this time it’s across Canada to raise awareness and funds to prevent youth homelessness. Joe, the former President and CEO of a successful multimedia company, fortunately found a life off the streets. But although his experience remains in the past, he knows first-hand the struggles homeless youth still face today—as well as the potential they have to turn their lives around when given the chance. Joe’s cross-country trek began in St. John’s this past spring and will end in Vancouver next fall. You can follow his 9,000 km journey by visiting The Push for Change website.

And although these three stories are pretty amazing, we just couldn’t help adding one more to the list!


Joshua and Abigail Dunbar with Mayor John Tory.

4. A duo delivering big community change: Abigail Dunbar, 10, and her brother, Joshua, 9, aren’t playing around when it comes to creating change in their Jane and Finch neighbourhood. The siblings made headlines this summer when they spearheaded an initiative to improve a local playground—not just for their own enjoyment, but for all children in their community. “I would like to have on it a wheelchair ramp, an accessible swing, big slides,” Abigail told CTV News. With the help of Future Possibilities for Kids, the duo have wrote letters to everyone from politicians to school board trustees, have an online petition with more than 350 signatures, and have even met with Mayor John Tory. With these community superstars leading the charge, we anticipate big results in the coming year!

Want to get inspiring stories delivered straight to your inbox? Subscribe to Community Matters and see the good work you make possible.

Who would you nominate?

We get to meet—and work with—some pretty amazing people here at United Way. So back in January we decided to launch our very own ‘Change Maker’ series to introduce you to some of the brightest, most passionate and hard-working people who are igniting change in the social services sector. Here’s a wrap up of these incredible individuals.

Zahra_photoZahra Ebrahim: She’s been called a “civic rockstar” by her fans on social media. She was featured as one of “Tomorrow’s Titans” in Toronto Life’s Most Influential issue. And she recently shared her city building passion as a featured speaker at TEDxToronto.  But it’s the urbanist’s trailblazing work connecting 75 youth from a Toronto priority neighbourhood with an opportunity to completely transform their local community hub that earned her a spot on our list.

YasinYasin Osman: He’s a 23-year-old Regent Park resident and photography phenom who captures the heart and soul of his beloved neighbourhood with the click of a shutter. His stunning images—which he posts to his thousands of followers on Instagram, are raw and real—Yasin’s way of showcasing all that makes him proud of the place he grew up. When he’s not busy working as an early childhood educator (ECE), he’s inspiring local kids and youth through #ShootForPeace, a pioneering photography program he created to inspire young people to explore art outside their neighbourhood.

MebDr. 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.

MichaelBraithewaiteMichael Braithwaite: He’s a passionate champion who’s made it his life’s work to ensure young people facing barriers have every opportunity for a promising future. As the Executive Director of 360°kids, he’s not only providing a safe haven for at-risk youth, he’s pursuing innovative, out-of-the-box ideas to tackle homelessness in York Region.

Kofi Hope2Kofi Hope: He’s a leading youth advocate and prestigious Rhodes scholar who has dedicated his life’s work to amplifying the voices of Black youth who face barriers such as poverty and racialization. He’s also made it his mission to empower these young people to take charge of their futures by focusing on innovative solutions that connect youth to each other—and their communities.

Now it’s your turn. Tell us who inspires you and nominate your very own Change Maker. He or she could be featured on our blog!

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.


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.


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.”


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.

The Top 5 stories that warmed our hearts in 2015

Each and every day, we’re touched by remarkable stories of personal transformation and possibility in the places where we live, work and raise our families.

Although it was tough to narrow down our choices, here are the top 5 stories that touched our hearts in 2015.

1. Support for Syria: Samantha Jackson and Farzin Yousefian made big headlines this past November when the Toronto couple announced they were cancelling their upcoming wedding party to host a smaller fundraiser with all the proceeds going to sponsor a Syrian refugee family of four. “We felt we had an obligation, in light of the humanitarian crisis, to contribute, and we thought this was the perfect opportunity to do that,” Farzin told the Toronto Star. Their story went viral and inspired hundreds of people to donate to this worthy cause that has raised $51,500 to date. This incredible young duo tied the knot in a smaller ceremony at City Hall last October. We wish them well on their journey ahead!

2. From homeless to Harvard: Tonika Morgan reminds us of all that is possible with lots of passion and hard work. After dropping out of high school at 17 and spending her teenage years in and out of homeless shelters, the now 32-year-old decided to turn her life around. Determined to attend university, Tonika managed to cobble together several part-time jobs—including a support worker at a United Way agency—to help put herself through school. After graduating from Ryerson’s diversity and equity studies program in 2008, she set her sights even higher: Harvard. “I applied and I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t think I would get in on the first try,” Tonika told CBC News. She was shocked when an acceptance letter from the Ivy League institution arrived in the mail last spring and turned to the Internet to launch a crowdfunding campaign to help make her dream a reality. Hundreds of people were inspired by her story and came together to help her cover 100% of the $71,000 USD price tag. This past fall, Tonika headed south of the border with an entire country cheering her on!

3. The gift of life: We couldn’t help but be inspired by the remarkable story of “miracle twins” Phuoc and Binh Wagner who were adopted from Vietnam by a Kingston, Ont., couple in 2012. Both girls desperately needed liver transplants—but the twins’ father, Michael, could only donate part of his liver to help save one of his daughters. The Wagner family turned to social media to appeal for additional organ donors and their story sparked international media attention. But what happened next was truly remarkable—demonstrating the power of a compassionate community to help strangers in need. Nearly 600 potential organ donors from across North America contacted Binh’s doctor in Toronto offering to help save her life—and the lives of countless other recipients on Ontario’s organ wait list. The four-year-old is now happy and healthy after receiving a transplant from an anonymous donor last April and joined her sister this fall for their first day of kindergarten. This holiday season, the Wagner clan plan to celebrate the best gift of all—each other!


4. A birthday to remember: Odin Camus had a birthday he’ll never forget earlier this year. The 13-year-old Peterborough, Ont., resident has Aspberger’s syndrome and sometimes struggled to make friends. After none of his classmates RSVP’d to his birthday party, Odin’s awesome mom Melissa turned to social media for help. The response from the online community was absolutely incredible. More than 20,000 people—including athletes, actors and politicians—took to Twitter to wish Odin a Happy Birthday. Hundreds of friends, family and even complete strangers also rallied together to throw Odin a party at a local bowling alley bringing cards, gifts and well wishes to celebrate the special occasion. We love Odin’s story because it demonstrates what a community is capable of when it rallies together for a common cause. It’s also a wonderful reminder of how a simple act of kindness can have a transformational effect on someone’s life.

5. A future that works: Angel Reyes spent years working in precarious, or insecure, temp positions and dealing with the daily, harsh realities of living on a low income. When he was laid off from his most recent job earlier this year, he worried about making ends meet. But there’s a happy ending to this story. After sharing his journey with the Toronto Star, the 61-year-old was inundated with messages of support. The Star reports Angel has since found a permanent, unionized job and a new, subsidized apartment. The best part?  Angel is using his hopeful story to shine a spotlight on the issue of precarious employment and to help spark a larger conversation about the need for labour reform in the province. “My intention is justice,” Angel told the Star. “Not just for me. It’s for the many, many workers in Ontario and Canada and the world who are living in circumstances like me.”

And you’ve probably heard about Walter, but if not, here’s a story we just couldn’t leave off our list!


6. A story for the ages: Walter Decker inspired hundreds of people last month when he became the oldest person ever to climb the CN Tower for United Way. When the 91-year-old retired, he made a commitment to stay healthy and active. The Hamilton, Ont., resident walks, completes 60 pushups every day and climbs the Hamilton escarpment at least twice-a-week. Impressive, right? But when Walter conquered Toronto’s most-famous vertical landmark in just over 45 minutes on November 8, 2015, he also stepped up on behalf of thousands of people and families across Toronto and York Region. “It makes me feel good to know I’m helping people that need United Way’s support,” he says. Way to go, Walter!

Want to get inspiring stories delivered straight to your inbox? Subscribe to Community Matters and see all the good work you make possible.