Welcoming refugees to our community

OCRA Syrian refugees
Back row: Pat, Catherine, Najlaa; in front, Rahaf and Osama with canine friend
Photo: Courtesy of OCRA

by Tanya Lary, Catherine Fleming, Angela Keller-Herzog, I.N., Paul Durber, Karen Hill and Mira Sucharov

Early days

Six Glebe residents met in early September 2015 to discuss the possibility of sponsoring a refugee family. With growing coverage of the refugee crisis in Syria and around the shores of the Mediterranean, an election underway and great community interest, by late November, the newly created Ottawa Centre Refugee Action, or OCRA, was holding community meetings with over 200 people attending and donation pledges exceeding $100,000.

For many people, their desire to help was personal. They were themselves immigrants and refugees, or the children of immigrants and refugees. They understood the trauma of dislocation – of finding yourself in a new country, learning a new language, experiencing a new climate and new cultures. For others, their interest was rooted in community values of being welcoming and inclusive. Many members of Ottawa’s Arab community volunteered, including those who themselves had been refugees. An OCRA youth group was formed, and organized fundraisers and support at meetings.

Getting organized – the accidental NGO

With such community interest, OCRA set up a core organizing group that approached First United Church and Jewish Family Services to become partners. They provided experienced advice, held donations to OCRA in trust for the new arrivals, and helped us move through the government sponsorship paperwork.

The upsurge of desire to help Syrian and other refugees by ordinary people in Ottawa Centre was and continues to be remarkable. We quickly set up a website, organizational email in-boxes and Google documents to handle the hundreds of offers of in-kind goods donations, helping hands and volunteer time, financial support and offers of “soft landing” housing. OCRA’s challenge has been to make all these offers of help fit and work together to good purpose. We give thanks for the generosity that surrounds us and apologize if there are some messages that we failed to respond to.

We began to set up Family Support Groups –12 to 15 people who would work together to welcome and support a new arrival family, based on a settlement plan with assigned volunteer roles and tasks. We established 12 Family Support Groups by January 2016, the maximum capacity of both our constituent groups and OCRA.

We eagerly awaited government lists of refugees that told us only the country of origin, family size, age and gender of family members and key medical information. We matched the lists with offers of temporary housing from OCRA members in the Glebe and the surrounding neighbourhoods – if someone could offer two bedrooms in their house, we looked for a family of between two and four members. OCRA also decided that we would not limit our sponsorships to Syrians.

Lary OCRA Syrian refugees
Alaa, Osama, Zahraa and Mohammed arrived in Ottawa in February 2016.

Our first new arrivals – winter 2015/16

We had been warned that it might take years to sponsor a family, but with the new government’s commitment to bringing in 25,000 Syrian refugees, this changed quickly. With only three days notice, our first family arrived just before Christmas 2015 into deceptively balmy weather. The family, a mother and two adult daughters from Syria, surprised us by speaking good English. Almost immediately, they began to volunteer with OCRA, playing a crucial role in linguistic and cultural interpretation, and sharing their experiences as refugees with OCRA volunteers, helping prepare the groundwork for future newcomers.

The next arrivals before the end of February were four Syrian families, all with young children. Although it was freezing weather, they were keen to experience tobogganing, hockey and the joys of shovelling show. Most of the new families stayed with host families for at least a month, providing a stable base from which to look for housing and other services. Kids enrolled at First Avenue Public School and were made welcome by teachers and fellow students.

Summer 2016

By early summer, OCRA had refugee sponsorship undertakings in place for all 12 Family Support Groups, committing to welcome a total of 37 people. June also saw the birth of the first baby – greatly assisted by CHEO’s neo-intensive care unit. By early July, at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, the Muslim families, along with our two Christian women from Iraq, very happily invited OCRA members for a memorable Eid feast.

Sponsored by a very generous donation from the Glebe Community Association, the amazing team at the Glebe Neighbourhood Activities Group partnered with OCRA to design a family English-as-a-Second-Language summer camp. About 40 new Syrian and Iraqi arrivals participated in July and August – hats off to GNAG!

Between May and October, OCRA welcomed more new arrivals from Gambia, Iraq, Syria and Colombia, and are living in Centretown, Vanier, Heron Park, Hunt Club, Kirkwood and Lincoln Fields. OCRA soon realized that affordable housing is almost impossible to find in the Glebe. It became clear that new arrivals’ modest budgets required settling into more affordable neigbourhoods

Challenges and progress

Most of the families had been without medical and dental care for several years, and had to endure lengthy dental appointments. We were fortunate to have several dentists provide free services.

In addition, the majority of the Syrian children had not been in school for several years. This meant that in addition to the challenges of attending school in a new language, they were also behind by several grades. Local schools warmly welcomed these children into their classrooms and provided them with additional support to adapt to the Canadian school system while learning an entirely new language. Many of the kids that arrived in February 2016 have now acquired a basic functional level of English and are serving as proud family translators for visiting OCRA volunteers.

For the parents, from being employed and secure in their home country to being unemployed and not always able to communicate easily was, and remains, a huge challenge. They are enrolled in English classes and continue to study diligently. A challenge has been to find daycare spots alongside ESL class spots for the younger moms. We are trying to help prevent these women from getting left behind by organizing home tutoring. And of course, underlying all of the excitement and challenges of being in a new language, culture and country is the great sadness and anxiety about the situation in their home country, and the worry for family and friends left behind.

The OCRA Family Support Groups, with help from local businesses and neighbours, have been key to the settlement process. Volunteers took them to medical and dental appointments, showed them around the neighbourhood and the city, registered kids in school and adults in language classes; helped them find housing and register for Child Benefits; provided ongoing support with financial planning, finding employment, English tutoring and many meals and play-dates. This has been a process of mutual sharing, friendship and growth, with much hospitality from the new arrivals and their Canadian hosts.

Many new arrivals have started to work – occasional labour and a great variety of part-time jobs. Most are trying to find a balance between work, language acquisition and study, and family. Settlement and integration takes time, but the families are keen to succeed as new Canadians

Overlapping sponsorship cycles

On November 15, 2016, we welcomed the last of the 12 families – two sisters and a single woman from the Central African Republic. We are celebrating that all of our 37 sponsored refugees have now arrived safely in Canada and that, with the community’s generosity, we are making a great deal of difference in these lives.

We are also planning for the imminent transition of those whose year of OCRA sponsorship is almost up by helping them transition into “Month 13” – their first month without OCRA or federal government financial support. Some are ready to work; others may have to go on to income assistance on a temporary basis, as they continue to learn English and upgrade their skills. Although our 12-month official commitment will end, friendship and support from OCRA members will continue.

OCRA thus finds itself halfway through its journey and our official sponsorship obligations will finish on November 16, 2017. For the refugees, a future has opened up in front of them. Yet, many of them are anxious about family members who remain in insecure situations. Family reunification is a theme of the Canadian refugee support system and it remains to be seen if these relatives will come to Canada.

How you can help

OCRA is still collecting donations to address contingencies, such as emergency dental care and the cost of their flights to Canada. Go to the OCRA website at www. refugeeaction.ca.

Key facts

  • Supporters: 475
  • Pledged: $230,000
  • Family Support Groups: 12
  • Refugees arrived since December 2015: 37
  • Countries of origin: Syria, Iraq, Colombia, Gambia, Central African Republic
  • Honorary Chair: Paul Dewar
  • Constituency Groups: First United Church of Ottawa, Jewish Family Services
  • Key partners: the Glebe Neighbourhood Activities Group, Glebe Community Association, First Avenue Public School, Mutchmor Public School, Centretown Citizens Ottawa Corporation, Centretown United Church, Ottawa Community Loan Foundation, Ottawa Public Library, Glebe St. James Church, Refugee613, the Ottawa Mosque
OCRA Syrian refugee kids
Rahaf, Zahraa, Andy and Osama tidying up at the church.

Thank You

La Brioche, Bloomfields Flowers, Malenka Originals, McKeen Metro Glebe, Glebe Apothecary, Delilah’s, Glebe Trotters, Capital Home Hardware, St Matthew’s Anglican Church, Centretown United Church, Salvation Army, Helping with Furniture, PC Perfect, Value Village, IKEA, Rogers, Wind Mobile, local dentists and barbers … all of you who donated services, time, money, furniture and clothing.

Thanks also to those who organized and played in our fundraisers: David Paré and the Howards, Altered Egos, Dave Rovics, Christmas carolers, the jazz fundraiser at Southminster United Church, and Mutchmor movie night led by the Grade 6s and OCRA Youth.


Key Milestone

  • September 12, 2015 – first meeting in the Glebe – six people attend
  • October 4 – 21 people attend an organizational meeting at Glebe Saint James
  • October 24 – 100+ people attend a meeting at Glebe St James
  • November 11 – Community meeting at St. Matthews 200+ people
  • November 23 – pledges reach $100K
  • November 23 – MOU to co–sponsor with Jewish Family Services (constituency group) and JIAS to be a Sponsorship Agreement Holder (later the Anglican Diocese of Ottawa became the SAH on this agreement).
  • November 25 – agreement to co–sponsor with First United Church of Ottawa (constituency group) and United Church of Canada (Sponsorship Agreement Holder)
  • December 12 – Community meeting at Glebe Saint James = 200+ people
  • December 19 – the first Syrian family arrives from Lebanon
  • January 13, 2016 – Community meeting at Centretown United Church – Monia Mazigh, Paul Dewar and Luna, one of our new arrivals, speak
  • January 13 – second family arrives from Syria
  • Mid–February – three more families from Syria arrive – six adults, nine children
  • March 5 – Community meeting at Centretown United – Catherine McKenna and new arrivals speak
  • May – a young man arrives from the Gambia, and a mother and daughter arrive from Iraq
  • June 2 – OCRA included in the United Way Community Builder of the Year awards
  • June 21 – Wissam Alexander – first OCRA baby – is born
  • July–August – GNAG ESL Family Summer Camp for new arrivals (funded by GCA)
  • July – two more families arrive, from Syria and Colombia
  • September 24 – first dinner catered by Yasmin – Syrian Food from the Heart, an emerging business headed by our first Syrian refugee.
  • October 11 – Mayor Jim Watson recognizes OCRA contributions in city hall ceremony
  • October 19 – Family reunification: two brothers of one of the OCRA families arrive as Government Sponsored refugees, with their families
  • October 19 – OCRA presents to Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights
  • October 31 – young man arrives from Iraq
  • October – November – a series of Arabic–language finance and heath workshops
  • November 12 – second OCRA baby is born
  • November 15 – two groups arrive from the Central African Republic – a single woman and two sisters

From the perspective 
of a new arrival

by I. N.

My family and I arrived to Canada a little less than a year ago. We were graciously greeted by the wonderful family that is OCRA. I was approached by a friend from OCRA to write a piece about our experience and to share my inner perspective, which I am positive my family shares with me.

Like so many other people around the world nowadays living under crises, and having been pushed by circumstances to make drastic decisions, I speak from experience when I say that in most cases it is not a choice!

Before we came here, we were only told that someone is sponsoring us, and were provided with no additional information. We came to Canada with a couple of suitcases and a blind hope. We were given two days’ notice before our flight! When we arrived to a new land, we were loaded with stress and expectations of failure, but to be received with such warmth, friendliness and comforting smiles, saying it is going to be okay and that we have a family here, made the 13-hour flight with constant worry about the future all go away.

We have been here for about 11 months now and Ottawa has been nothing but welcoming and supportive. Many aspects in the Canadian life were very different for us. Coming here, I had a new-found respect for Canadians, namely, amongst many other things, how they tolerate such extreme weather! Also, for me personally, the fact that government buildings could look like Hogwarts was one of Ottawa’s best features. Poutine as a national dish was a cherry on top!

Since OCRA is so wonderfully organized, it seemed to us like things were happening really quickly in terms of settlement and integration until we caught up with things and time went back to its normal pace. Throughout the past 11 months, my family and I agree that some of our biggest accomplishments, thanks to OCRA, were our integration in society and becoming familiar with its protocols, learning how to navigate through bureaucracies, learning how to get around the city as efficiently as possible, and of course, building a network of resources thanks to almost everyone we met since we came here, which makes pursuing education and career much more possible for us as newcomers. As other families started to arrive, it was always wonderful to be invited by OCRA to greet them at the airport and see that same expression of surprise and joy on their faces once they see a beautiful group of people waiting for them at the bottom of the escalator!

I.N. was one of the first of the Syrian refugees to arrive in Ottawa under OCRA (Ottawa Centre Refugee Action) sponsorship.

Share this