Refuge and a Warm Embrace
Roberta loves to listen to the sounds of Matthew House Ottawa. As the live-in “house mother” at this residence for refugee claimants, she wakes up to the morning sounds of footsteps on the floor, breakfast being made, new days beginning. She knows the evening sounds of the cooking and sharing of the communal dinner, the laughter as new arrivals bond over a game of cards or dominos.
Roberta also knows that sometime around 9 p.m., the mood will shift. Silence will settle over the house as the residents retreat to their own spaces, to be with their own thoughts, their own stories, their own losses and reasons for displacement.
The eight to 10 people staying at Matthew House Ottawa: Refugee Services at any one time may come from all over the world, speak different languages and have wildly different experiences, but they share one important characteristic: they are all refugee claimants. Unlike the better-known categories of refugees in Canada — the government-assisted and the privately sponsored — claimants were not approved before arrival. They were not met by settlement workers and taken to a reception centre, nor were they met by groups of happy Canadians bearing welcoming signs and balloons.
Refugee claimants arrive in Canada and ask for asylum. Their reasons vary, but they are generally the same reasons that go into refugee claims in the other categories: they have left their homes because of war or fear of persecution, and they are asking Canada to give them a safe place to call home. Many of them have used every penny they have to reach Canadian soil, and few have any idea what to do next or how they will survive once here. If they’re lucky, someone will point them to a home like Matthew House Ottawa. It’s one of a network of similar shelters for claimants across Canada, including three other Matthew Houses in Toronto, Windsor and Fort Eerie, and Carty House in Ottawa (which serves female refugees and claimants).
At Matthew House they get a bed, a spot on the chore list, the support of Roberta and the expert guidance of program manager Kailee Brennan (seen here with former resident Derrick, advancing in his banking career). Brennan provides advice as clients wade through the red tape of making a claim and following it through the refugee protection system. There is so much paperwork involved, each resident is assigned his or her own mailbox to keep important documents organized and secure. Claims take on average 2-3 months to be resolved, and Matthew House invites their residents to stay with them during this process. Sometimes, those who are particularly vulnerable are invited to stay a little longer.
“We are meeting our residents at possibly the most vulnerable time in their lives. They have left everything, including their family, behind and, more often than not, come to Canada after having experienced significant trauma,” says Miriam Rawson, executive director.
“We exist so that, instead of having to worry about where they will find food, a bed and, more importantly, companionship, friendship, and family, our residents can concentrate on getting through the most difficult process of retelling their narratives with the hope that Canada will show mercy and allow them to remain.”
The team at MHO say that while their Christian faith informs their work, they do not discriminate, nor do they proselytize. “We serve residents of all faiths and all backgrounds,” says Miriam. “We let them know we are doing this because we believe Jesus tells us to, but that is where it ends.”
Matthew House Ottawa does this all with private donations covering their $100,000 annual operating costs. Bethany Baptist Church leases them the modest, red-brick house tucked in the trees for a symbolic $100 a month, and longtime supporters help them stretch their modest budget by helping to cook meals, or donating whatever is most needed. Still, it is a challenge to raise the needed cash every year, which is why Matthew House has taken on the role of organizer for the Minto Ride for Refuge, a bike ride and walk to benefit a number of local charities working with vulnerable populations.
“The Minto Ride for Refuge brings together close to 20 local charities. Everyone is there for the same reason — to support the vulnerable, displaced, and exploited. We have a great time on the day, we ride or walk together and then swap stories while we celebrate over a barbeque lunch,” Miriam says.
Spending time with the residents every day leads to some powerful conversations, says Roberta, noting that almost every resident shares his or her story of loss, heartbreak and missing their families.
“Sometimes a resident will ask me why we do this work,” says Roberta. “I tell them it’s because it’s the right thing to do. I also tell them we do it because we are all imperfect, we are all broken in some way, just not in the same ways.
If you would like to donate furniture for refugees, including claimants, you may contact Matthew House Ottawa: Furniture Bank here.
Please note that, like most local agencies supporting immigrants and refugees, Matthew House Ottawa does not accept donations of clothing, and prefers that any donation of clothing go instead to existing charities who deal in clothing.