Welcome to Canada!

There is a 10-year-old boy sitting in the mayor’s chair in Sault Ste. Marie. He’s holding a gavel and grinning so widely everyone else in the room is smiling. He’s only been in Canada for a month. How did he get so far, so fast!? The boy’s family is from Burma (now known as Myanmar) and he was born in a refugee camp in Thailand. He and his two sisters, a brother and his parents, arrived in November. They have an apartment, the kids are in school with the youngest in childcare and the parents are taking English-as-a-second-language (ESL)  classes. The family’s Steelworker connection is Murray McLean, a member of USW Local 2724 (Essar Steel Algoma), who joined a group that formed at his church a year-and-a- half ago to sponsor a refugee family.

When the Steelworkers Humanity Fund announced it would assist Syrian refugee sponsorship groups that included USW members, McLean got in touch and asked that the fund consider his group also. The group’s application was successful, receiving $7,500 from the fund towards their sponsorship. McLean says learning English is the biggest barrier to employment for the father of the family. He hopes the ESL classes will provide the father with basic language skills so that he can find work initially in either hospitality or the service industry.

In preparation for the family’s arrival, McLean’s group found two local college and university students who speak the Karen language. They have been indispensable in translating for the family during their first weeks here. Learning English might be difficult. But how about opening a bank account? The Karen people don’t have surnames. The appointment at the credit union took a little longer than McLean had expected because they had to negotiate accepting the family members’ first names as their surnames.

McLean is all smiles talking about preparation for the family’s arrival. The group found and rented an apartment in a neighbourhood close to childcare and grocery stores and the landlord was welcoming and supportive. The childcare centre had space for the youngest, who is two, and the centre gifted back the year’s fee to place him. McLean’s group started through his church and includes 16 people. McLean emphasized the group effort beyond the congregation. Many more volunteers are now involved, providing extra help learning English, for example. The group drafted a budget of $30,000 to support the family in its first year.

Raising the money wasn’t the hard part, and McLean believes the rewards are as much for the members of his group as for the family. Quite a few of the committee members are retired, so they have the daytime hours to help – attending medical and other appointments. The group has divided the responsibilities and formed committees so no one member of the group is overwhelmed. “It has changed the people on our committee as much as it’s changed the family. They’ve been changed by this experience in all good ways,” says McLean.

Visiting Sault Ste. Marie City Hall and meeting the mayor is just one of the many welcoming activities the family has enjoyed. McLean took them skating in the winter and the two older children got skateboards for their birthdays and are enrolled in soccer for the summer.

From Civil War to a Fresh Start

A Syrian family of five: two parents, an 8-year-old boy, 6-year-old girl and 4-year old boy, are now living in Thorncliffe Park in the east end of Toronto after arriving from Ghana in December. Their suburban neighbourhood outside Damascus was bombed three years ago and they moved to Ghana to escape the war. While in Ghana, all five of them learned some English, which has made it easier for them to adjust to life in Canada.

Pia Berger, of USW Local 1998, staff at the University of Toronto, is a member of the family’s sponsorship group. The 10-member group applied and received $7,500 from the Steelworkers Humanity  Fund.

“I was reading the news, horrified at the civil war in Syria, disturbed at how little attention is paid. A relative suggested sponsoring a family and I saw that Lifeline Syria was hosting a meeting at Toronto City Hall,” says Berger. After that July meeting, she recruited her parents and other neighbours in Toronto’s east end to form the October 7th Refugee Sponsorship Group.

Berger follows USW social media feeds and read about the Steelworkers Humanity Fund’s initiative to support Syrian refugees through active sponsorship groups like hers. “I don’t look at it as an inspirational thing,” says Berger on what might interest other USW members in getting involved. “It has been a wonderful process – getting to know this family, being able to provide them with stability and a fresh start. Their future was up in the air. Now they are settled in Canada and can look to a bright future.

“The group of 10 of us have the time to do this. If you are in a position to help, then you should help.” Berger’s group aimed to raise more than the $28,000 required to sponsor a refugee family, to cover one year’s living expenses in Canada. Help from the Steelworkers Humanity Fund has made a big difference. “The 10 of us share the load. We have the support of nine other people and all of us are committed. It is a time commitment and a moral commitment,” she says.

What USW Locals can do

  • Find out if any members of your local are interested in or already participating in a private sponsorship group (for example a church group, community group or “group of five” or more). 
  • Make a donation to the Steelworkers Humanity Fund, directed to Refugee Support.
  • Groups that include Steelworker members or SOAR members who are considering refugee sponsorship should contact the Steelworkers Humanity Fund  at 416-544-5994, humanityfund@usw.ca,  or 800-234 Eglinton Ave. E., Toronto, M4P 1K7.

To date the Steelworkers Humanity Fund has been able to make commitments to 13 different groups sponsoring refugee families. So far, four families have arrived in Canada. Others are still waiting for Canada’s refugee system to complete the processing.

This article appears in the June 2016 edition of USW@Work magazine.

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