Give your time and talent
You want to lend a hand to Ottawa's refugee welcome and integration efforts, but you aren't sure how or where? We're here to help.
The people of Ottawa are responding to the global refugee crisis in outstanding numbers. Since 2015, more than 6,000 residents have told Refugee 613 they want to volunteer in support of refugee integration — another example of this city's big heart.
Not everyone will have the volunteer opportunity they envision because there simply isn't enough work to go around. But the good news is that many residents are already volunteering and more opportunities open up all the time.
Here are some options for connecting with programs and services that welcome volunteers.
Volunteer directly for a settlement agency
The professionals working for agencies of the LASI coalition (Local Agencies Serving Immigrants) support the integration of refugees and other immigrants every day, providing vital orientation, housing assistance, language classes, career mentoring and much more. Most of them rely on volunteers to help in that mission. Here are the links to their websites:
Volunteer for Refugee 613
Refugee 613 doesn't provide frontline service to refugees — instead, we support the people and organizations who do. This includes settlement agencies and other social service providers, private sponsors, community organizations and individuals making a difference. Opportunities to volunteer with Refugee 613 include supporting our operations with tasks like administrative support, facilitating workshops, research, writing and editing, translation and interpretation, and providing crucial planning and on-site support at one of the many public events or training workshops we host throughout the year. If you have time and talent to donate, please send an email with the subject line Volunteering With Refugee 613 to firstname.lastname@example.org and include a description of your skill set and how you would like to contribute to our mission.
Many local organizations outside of the settlement and sponsorship sectors serve refugees and other newcomers, and they also need your energy and skills. Visit the website of Volunteer Ottawa to find opportunities in the community. Volunteer Ottawa has extensive listings of positions throughout Ottawa, for every age, skill level and interest. If you don't see one that specifically notes working with newcomers as part of the role, ask Volunteer Ottawa for more information.
Create your own opportunity
Your school, sports club, faith group, community association or professional group may have refugee initiatives that need volunteers. If they don't, consider creating one yourself — it's a great way to bring refugee welcome to all parts of the city.
Look at your networks and communities and ask yourself how open they are to newcomers, regardless of where they come from, and what you can do to improve that welcome. Sponsor a refugee family, host a fundraising event, gather your peers to join a mentorship program or create an initiative to make your networks more welcoming to refugees and other newcomers — the possibilities are endless. For some inspiration, check out these resources from Welcoming America, a non-governmental organization in the United States dedicated to building bridges between communities in support of immigrant integration.
But wait! Be sure to check with settlement agencies and others in the field early in the planning stages of your initiative. Someone else may be doing exactly what you're thinking of, in which case it would be great to team up and give them support. If you find out your idea is useful and fills a gap, learn from the experts (service providers and refugees themselves) and try to partner with organizations already working with refugees to design something appropriate. If you're not sure how to get started, email email@example.com. We'll listen to your idea and see how we can help.
Working together, we all can help refugees feel at home in their new city.
I signed up to volunteer a long time ago — why haven't I heard anything?
There is far more interest in helping refugees than there are opportunities. We can take pride in being a generous community while also acknowledging that not everyone will have a chance to help out directly.
This is largely because volunteer management takes time and money. Responsible organizations working with vulnerable people such as refugees ensure they screen volunteers, verify they have up-to-date police record checks, interview them to find an opportunity that fits their profile and give them some training on refugee issues.
The agencies working closely with immigrants receive funding to provide things like orientation services, housing assistance, health support and employment advice. While some of them have funding for selecting, training and matching volunteers, many do not. As we continue to support the community in improving and finding new models for combining the expertise of the settlement sector with the energy of the public, we invite you to reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org for any questions or support.
Why can't I just start helping a newly arrived refugee on my own?
You can, but make it a priority to first check with the settlement agencies mandated by the federal government to provide newcomers with support and advice.
Some resettled refugees aren't fully aware of what services they are already receiving or what has already been done for them because of language barriers and an overwhelming flow of information on arrival. In the case of refugee claimants, many don't know how to begin accessing services. At the same time, most volunteers know little about the refugee experience, the services available to newcomers or how to support them with integrity and sensitivity.
As a result, some refugees have found volunteer efforts to be intrusive, while others have welcomed the volunteers but asked them to buy things they will receive from settlement agencies or provide services already completed for them, such as filling out forms on their behalf. This can lead to confusion that duplicates or even interrupts the settlement services already in progress and delays the integration process.
If you meet a refugee and want to help, the first thing you can do is help them connect with settlement services. Contact the YMCA Newcomer Information Centre and ask for advice to connect the newcomer to one of the local settlement agencies. After that, we encourage you to offer the priceless gift of your friendship and, when needed, guidance to life in a new city — two powerful ways to build a sense of belonging in our community.