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* some photos are published with permission from Aurora Cultural Centre

Below is a video playlist from the event.

Event report by Jackie Kovacs

On June 16th, 2016, IDI hosted its third annual Ramadan Iftar dinner, in association with the York Region’s Children’s Aid Society (YRCAS) and the Aurora Cultural Centre. The theme for the evening was Refugee Families in York Region: Challenges, Trends, and Opportunities. There was music by Nasim Misrabi, newly arrived from Syria in February. He said he was proud to be here and was thankful to feel so welcomed, to be invited to so many Iftar dinners, “It feels like I’m at home,” he said. He joked that in Syria he used to always sing Canadian pop songs, but now that he is here everyone asks him to sing in Arabic. “Thank you for supporting us and thank you for helping us be human,” he said.

There were messages of welcome to the guests from Fatih Yegul, IDI’s Executive Director of GTA East who spoke about Ramadan as a special time, in which in addition to fasting Muslims try to be more moral and generous. Laura Schembri, the Executive Director of the Aurora Cultural Centre described these dinners as one of her favourite events of the year. She explained that the Centre used to be the site of an 1886 school house, then a museum, and now a cultural centre. It has been a gathering place for 100 years, that has transformed from a place of learning to a place of cultural discovery.

Colette Prevost, CEO of the York Region Children’s Aid society, spoke about the timeliness and critical discourse of the night’s theme. The images of Alan Kurdi made the world reflect on child safety and the collective responsibility we share in it, she said. When we community plan, we need to take into account peoples backgrounds and experiences, which includes young children and adolescents.

Rhonda Jarrett brought greetings on behalf of the Office of Leona Alleslev, MP Aurora-Oak Ridges-Richmond Hill. Chris Ballard brought greetings on behalf of Brian Morris, MPP Newmarket-Aurora, expressing the importance to reaching out to the community as demographics continue to change.

Mayor Geoffrey Dawe of Aurora spoke of the ideals of unity, love, peace, and healing, especially in the wake of the Orlando shooting. These community gatherings are important, he said, in an effort to honour and respect our communities. Knowledge and understanding are needed to live better together, to reflect on peace and happiness in the purpose of better understanding each other.

Panel Discussion

The panel discussion was moderated by Michael Bowe, from the YRCAS, who spoke about his experiences of coming to Canada when he was very young. He was not used to twenty four house electricity or more than two local channels. He said the theme for the evening made him think back to these difference, including the first time he saw snow, and made him reflect on the support that was given versus the support that was needed.

Jason Hastings, a panelist, from Local Immigration Partnership gave a number of statistics and overviews. He explained the three types of refugee streams: government sponsored, privately sponsored, and a blended stream of the two. The majority of the refugees in York Region are privately sponsored or blended. He explained that there are 10 000 to 12 000 newcomers every year to York Region, and only about 70 to 80 are refugees. With the added Syrian refugees, the number only grows to 300 to 1000.

He explained that there are many robust services for newcomers in York Region already, with five welcome centres. Local Immigration Partnerships’s plan was to help private sponsors know what services were available to them. For example, the minimum amount required to privately sponsor a refugee family of four is $27 thousand a year, which doesn’t go a long way in a town like Richmond Hill.

Their plan is to focus on what happens in month 13, when the government sponsorship ends. They expect them to require social services since one year is most likely insufficient to allow people to become self-sufficient. Thankfully, he said, the Regional Council allocated a one time increase of $200 thousand funding to services. He said that the Syrian refugee crisis has kickstarted the way York Region looks at how they handle refugees.

Agnes Manasan, from the Catholic Community Services of York Region, spoke about what is happening in settlement programs. This includes a five week program for elementary and high school aged refugees to prepare them for the upcoming school year. She explained the shortage of Arabic speaking service providers.

Rummana Virji, from the York Region District School Board (YRDSB), spoke of the experiences of new refugees. She explained that there were 200 this past school year, but only about 60 were from Syria—which also includes Muslim, Christian, and Yazadi refugees. The common message is that they are humbled by Canadian love, generosity, and care, especially since passing through many places, they did not have the best treatment or resources. She explained the importance of meeting them where they were and understanding that none of the families had the same experiences—a needs based approach is most effective. The high cost of transportation and rent is one of the biggest difficulties, since most of the resources go to this.

She also touched on the need for mental health counselling as many of these children have faced traumas on their way to Canada. She described a little girl who was afraid of buses after both her uncle’s and father’s bus had exploded. On a happier note though, Ms. Virji explained that many refugees were already taking english classes and looking to find jobs and start their new lives.

Naheed Yaqubian LLB, chair of the YRDSB Equity and Inclusivity Advisory Committee, also shared an example of things we see as common place but may not be to newcomers. The mother of a refugee asked someone in Ms. Yaqubian’s office if buying Valentine’s Day cards for all the kids in the class was really something that was done. He said yes, so she ended up buying individual hallmark cards, because she didn’t know that you could purchase one large box of cards.

She explained that Hicks Morley LLP has 1300 lawyers helping with the legal and settlement process, as the legal system can be difficult to navigate for residents, let alone newcomers. She stressed that the Human Rights code in Ontario is applied to everyone, not just citizens. They are also involved in helping private sponsors navigate the sponsorship process and helps with filling out the substantive forms as well.

During the Question and Answer period, the different experiences people have faced was highlighted once again with the effectiveness of a needs based approach. Ms. Virji explained that York Region has a heart, with many in the community coming together to provide any support they can.