Pulling on lived experiences

Pulling on lived experiences

Sisters find new life in Canada thanks to Afghan Women’s Organization

With Ottawa’s commitment to resettle between 20,000 to 40,000 Afghan refugees — about half of whom are expected to settle in the Greater Toronto Area — it takes a village (or, rather, a network) to ensure a seamless settlement.

That’s why United Way Greater Toronto (UWGT) has long raised and distributed funds to settlement agencies, including the Afghan Women’s Organization Refugee and Immigrant Services (AWO) and Polycultural Immigrant and Community Services.

These community agencies are in a unique position to help. After all, they’ve been doing this for decades.

Soman Faqiri and her sister, Simran, came to Canada in February 2019 after living in New Delhi as Afghan refugees for 10 years. “As a refugee, it’s never easy, especially back in India where we didn’t have many rights,” said Soman. “It was a life where you always felt helpless.”

It was AWO that helped the sisters come to Canada, along with their parents and brothers. AWO has been working with refugees and immigrants for more than 30 years and is now playing a crucial role in supporting the recent influx of Afghan refugees.

Founded and led by Afghan women, AWO has particularly valuable insights and skills, such as language, cultural understanding and community connections; most of the staff are refugees and immigrants with lived experience. They provide direct support to recent refugees as a first point of contact — from any country, not just Afghanistan — and then collaborate with other agencies to address different needs, from clothing to employment counselling to permanent residency support.

At the start of the pandemic, UWGT provided AWO with emergency COVID-19 funding, allowing AWO to set up a network of food banks for those in need, and to deliver groceries and supplies to those with transportation issues.

When they first arrived in Canada, Soman said her family was in such a state of emotional and psychological distress she didn’t want to go out or talk to anybody. AWO helped with their basic needs of food, clothing and shelter, but took it a step further by helping them connect with the local Afghan community. AWO staff also enrolled them in English classes, registered the parents for seniors’ programming and provided supports for the family’s physical and mental well-being.

“When you go to a new country, everything is new for you and … you feel like you don’t fit. It takes you time to feel part of that community and the environment around you,” said Soman. “The English classes helped me get to know new people and get used to the environment.”

AWO also provides supports to help refugees deal with the trauma they’ve endured, yet in the Afghan community ‘mental health’ is a taboo subject. To tackle this issue in a culturally sensitive manner, AWO offers wellness and well-being sessions led by peer leaders to address mental health issues and “create space for people to feel comfortable to speak about whatever challenges they might have,” said Mina Saboor, board secretary with AWO.

And through small-group recreational programs, refugees can make connections and gain a sense of community. “In some cases, people come here completely alone, with nobody to call family or friends,” said Saboor. “So, for them, being part of this community, being part of these groups and sessions, it makes a huge impact. And a lasting one, too.”

Polycultural, a United Way anchor agency in Peel, serves as a first point of contact for Afghan refugees. The agency got its start 50 years ago serving Polish immigrants but has since evolved to support the GTA’s diverse immigrant communities with five locations and services in 20 languages.

The agency gained valuable experience processing large numbers of refugees during the Syrian refugee crisis that started in 2015, so was uniquely positioned to help this time around. Of course, this year there was one big difference — a global pandemic.

“It’s a lot different from the Syrian refugees. COVID put a lot of restrictions on us, the government, the clients, on everybody,” said Marwan Ismail, executive director of Polycultural. That meant placing refugees into quarantine upon arrival, and ensuring public health followed up with medical checks and vaccine clinics.

Polycultural, along with a network of other agencies, was at Pearson Airport to greet the first wave of refugees, who had previously worked with the Canadian Forces or the Canadian Embassy in Kabul.

But the second wave of refugees — those who were frantic to get out when Kabul fell to the Taliban — landed with literally the clothes on their backs and limited paperwork. Of those, about 42 per cent were children under the age of 18, said Ismail.

To date, Polycultural has received 18 flights with about 3,000 Afghan refugees, who have since been sent to 33 reception centres across Canada funded by the federal government. The agency is still receiving about 100 individuals a week, most of whom are coming from Pakistan.

Some refugees, however, are not eligible for government funding. “We need funding that has no restrictions, and this money usually comes from organizations like United Way,” said Ismail. “United Way responds to the specific needs in every community — maybe in one neighbourhood it’s a program for youth, and in another they fund a program for seniors. They follow the need of the neighbourhood.”

Another 40,000 Afghan refugees are expected to arrive in Canada within the next two years. And organizations like AWO and Polycultural are ready. “I love how our community responds to crisis,” said Ismail. “I think Canada has one of the best systems for settling refugees.”

Case in point: Both Soman and Simran are now attending George Brown College and studying business administration. Simran hopes to work with an aid organization; in particular, she’d like to help give Afghan girls the opportunity to study. Soman hopes to start a family business. “I’m really optimistic about my future,” Simran said, “and the opportunities I have in what I can do for myself and my family.”

END TAG/DISCLAIMER: The Toronto Star is involved in a promotional partnership with the United Way to support its annual fundraising campaign. The organization was not involved in the review or approval of this content before publication. However, the content may not meet the standards of impartial or independent journalism.

Read this article as it originally appeared in the Hamilton Spectator on December 5, here.


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