Hello everyone, and welcome to OCRA’s very first blog post! We hope you’ll find this information useful to stay informed about our activities, and learn more about what we do.
Let’s kick off this inaugural blog post with a quick recap of our first December community meeting held just a few short weeks ago – on December 12, 2015, over 200 people took time from their busy holiday festivities to visit St James United Church in the Glebe, to learn more about OCRA, our activities, and the refugee process and experience in Canada.
The meeting began with a welcome and thanks from OCRA founder, Angela Keller-Herzog. She noted that from its initial beginnings with a few women around her kitchen table, to a volunteer organization with well over 400 people wanting to contribute, the progress and speed with which we have moved has been astounding. The difference they will make in the life of several refugee families in Ottawa will be very real.
Next on the agenda was Tanya Lary, Treasurer, who provided a snapshot of our activities to date, including membership growth, and donations – now totalling over $145,000!. Tanya went on to explain the OCRA sponsorship model, which uses a ‘soft landing approach’, providing refugees with both community support to help them adjust to life in Canada, and financial support to help them with the costs of daily living. When discussing the financial responsibilities of sponsorship, Tanya noted that OCRA is not a registered charity, but rather a volunteer organization. Our financial donations are directed to the United Church and Jewish Family Services, while our biggest asset, our volunteers and their in-kind donations, support the human side of refugee resettlement – helping families feel welcome as they adjust to their new life in Ottawa.
With the donations, and volunteer time committed to date, we now have enough capacity to support 10 families. Following our latest discussions with Citizenship and Immigration Canada, we have been assigned two families: one family of three (who have arrived!), and a family of six (who are scheduled to arrive in January 2016). Their arrivals and experiences will be covered in future blog posts.
Following Tanya’s update on OCRA activities, we heard from several folks with first hand experience as newcomers to Canada.
Janet Lai was just a young girl when she arrived in the late seventies as one of the thousands of Vietnamese “boat people” accepted by the Canadian refugee system. She spoke of the transition from a being a wealthy, literate and educated family, to being at the mercy of a refugee system and camp with no literacy support and few prospects for the future. She believed the OCRA resettlement approach is both impressive and comprehensive, and encouraged new adult refugees to take up a vocation and trade. While much focus is given to immediate needs, and helping newcomers acclimatize to their new homes, we must think long term and ensure that our refugees can build sustainable, independent lives.
Janet was followed by Chelby Daigle, Editor in Chief of MuslimLink.ca. Chelby converted to Islam 12 years ago. As Editor-in-Chief of MuslimLink, her goal is to better connect Muslims with other Muslims in Ottawa. Chelby noted that Ottawa is home to the fourth largest Muslim community in Canada and the third largest Syrian community. She highlighted that while connected by Islam, the Ottawa Muslim community is disconnected by both geography and sects. This ‘disconnection’ is important as it may hamper outreach and engagement efforts. Chelby believes that organizations such as OCRA will help break down barriers, and address issues such as Islamophobia – we have a real opportunity to develop new relationships and build bridges. She invited OCRA members to visit her site to learn more about the Muslim community in Ottawa.
Finally, we heard from one of the more well known new Canadians in Ottawa, Yasir Naqvi, MPP, Ottawa Centre. Yassir is celebrating two decades of life in Ottawa, and considers himself an example of how a generous community can support an immigrant based on merit. Yasir noted that his father spent nine months as a political prisoner in Pakistan. He described the difficult process of leaving everything you know to come to the west, and mentioned that in many cases, we can’t assume that refugees feel “lucky”.
In the last part of the program, Rev. Brian Cornelius from First United Church noted the long involvement of the churches with the refugee settlement process, and provided an overview of the system of private sponsorship, and the role of the official Sponsorship Agreement Holders (SAHs) in the Canadian refugee system. First United is sponsoring two families directly, and is happy to work in partnership with community groups like OCRA. In closing, Angela and Mira Sucharov noted that OCRA needs time commitments, in-kind donations including offers of welcoming homes, community leadership and financial support to thrive – all four are core elements of our successful “soft landing” approach. Along with pledges, they encouraged people to fundraise and spread the word through their own channels, including schools, athletic groups, etc.
Stay tuned for our next post, when we highlight the arrival of our very first refugee family, who landed in Canada on December 21, 2015 – months of work comes to fruition at last!
Until then, keep visiting the blog, like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter.
Together we can make a difference, one family at a time.