Nader Naseri had never even heard of Peterborough when he found out his family would be moving here eight years ago. Now he can’t imagine living anywhere else.
“I wouldn’t want to move out of this town at all,” Naseri said. “I love it.”
Naseri was 14 years old in 2015 when he and his family, who are members of Iran’s Yarsan religious minority, came to Canada after fleeing political and religious persecution in their home country.
They ended up coming to Peterborough after being sponsored by a group of volunteers from Emmanuel United Church (formerly known as George Street United).
Naseri said the city welcomed him and his family “with open arms.” Now he gives the same warm welcome to other refugees as a volunteer with the New Canadians Centre (NCC), an immigrant and refugee settlement organization in Peterborough.
“I really just want to give back to my community,” Naseri said. “It’s extremely hard for a new-arrival immigrant family to get their own ground in a society that is foreign to them.”
Peterborough has seen a sharp rise in the number of refugees coming to the city in the last two years, putting volunteers like Naseri in high demand at the NCC, which is the agency responsible for providing services to government-assisted refugees in the region.
Up until 2020, the federal department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) had a target of resettling 75 government-assisted refugees in Peterborough every year, according to Marisa Kaczmarczyk, NCC’s director of client services.
But in 2021, IRCC bumped Peterborough’s target up to 144 refugees per year, amid an ongoing countrywide effort to resettle 40,000 Afghan refugees fleeing the Taliban, Kaczmarczyk said.
In total, 172 government-assisted refugees came to Peterborough in the 12-month period ending in March 2022, followed by 152 in the 12-month period ending in March 2023. Numbers from the first quarter of the current year suggest the pace is continuing.
The city has not historically been a major destination for refugees, but the federal government designated the NCC as a welcome centre for government-assisted refugees during the height of the Syrian refugee crisis in 2016, opening the door for more to settle here.
Since that time Peterborough has welcomed a total of 765 government-assisted refugees, NCC’s numbers show.
An additional 190 privately-sponsored refugees have come to Peterborough since 2015, according to data from IRCC.
Government-assisted refugees receive financial assistance from the federal government during their first year in Canada, whereas privately-sponsored refugees have their costs covered by individuals or organizations during that initial year.
Peterborough has also taken in 314 Ukrainians since the Russian invasion of their country began in 2022, the NCC said. They came under a special federal government program to temporarily resettle Ukrainians fleeing the war.
“We have people coming from all over the world,” Kaczmarczyk said. “I just think it's great for our city to have people from a wide variety of backgrounds.”
But for a number of the refugees who come to Peterborough, this city ends up only being a temporary stopover until they can move somewhere else, whether to be closer to family members or for other reasons, Kaczmarczyk said. Of the 152 government-assisted refugees who arrived in Peterborough last year, about half later moved out of the area, Kaczmarczyk said.
“We try to keep them in Peterborough,” she said. “We show them … how great a community this is.” But she said she understands when someone decides to go elsewhere.
“I saw their struggles, I experienced the struggles as well.”
One of the first people most government-assisted refugees meet in Peterborough is a caseworker from the New Canadians Centre, who will help them with everything from setting up a bank account to finding housing during their first year in Canada, according to Sara Shahsavari, NCC’s volunteer administrator.
But along with those practical aspects of getting established in a new country, refugees also need to find a sense of belonging in their new home – and that’s where volunteers come in, Shahsavari said.
“Having Canadian people kind of embrace you – that really does impact you,” she said.
It’s Shahsavari’s job to match each refugee family or individual with a team of volunteers to act as their support network while they get settled. Volunteers help with whatever is needed, whether it’s a ride to a doctor’s appointment, help with grocery shopping, English practice, or just someone to go on a walk with, Shahsavari said.
Refugees feel less alone when they know a volunteer is only a phone call away, Shahsavari said. “It's like, ‘oh, I'm not so isolated. There's someone friendly who is here to support me and has my back,’” she said. “There's this special relationship that's developed between the volunteers and newcomers.”
Shahsavari has seen in her own family what can happen when refugees have no one to turn to for support.
Her mother is from Poland and her father is from Iran. They both fled their respective countries and met after finding asylum in Canada in the late 1980s. She said there was no one to help them with things like finding housing in those early days as they were trying to get their bearings.
“They were just dropped in Toronto – no support, no guidance of where to find a place,” she said. “I saw their struggles, I experienced the struggles as well.”
She said her family experienced poverty and moved repeatedly when she was growing up. “I can only imagine if they had some support, there would have been more stability.”
But today many volunteers in Peterborough have stepped up to give that support to a new generation of refugees, Shahsavari said. “Peterborough is so open and so willing to give time and attention to newcomers that I think is really different from bigger cities,” she said.
"I want them to feel they belong in our community"
Naseri said the refugees he volunteers with are often surprised to find out that he was in their shoes not that long ago.
When he came to Canada he didn’t speak a word of English. Now, he is studying history at Trent University and previously graduated from Fleming College’s police foundations program, he said.
He said he wouldn’t be where he is today without the support his family received when they came to Canada. “I just can't thank my sponsors enough for their help.”
But some refugees have a harder time making their way in Peterborough, he said. “I know people that have… dropped out of high school to just help out their family.”
That’s why now, as a volunteer, he wants to be someone newcomers can lean on for support. As soon as he’s paired up with a refugee to volunteer with, he gives them his cell phone number and tells them to text or call whenever they need something. “I'll be there, regardless of anything,” he said.
“I see refugees arriving in Canada with no support, no family members,” he said. “I just want to make them comfortable and feel they belong in our community.”
Correction: Naseri and his family are part of Iran's Yarsan religious minority, not Arsan, as was written in an earlier version of this story. It's been corrected.