Inside the New Canadians Centre’s welcome for refugees fleeing the Taliban

With only four days’ notice, the NCC helped them start their new lives in Canada.

When the NCC’s executive director Andy Cragg hung up the phone on the morning of Monday Sept. 14, he could be forgiven for feeling a little concerned. 

He’d just been told that the New Canadians Centre would be receiving and temporarily resettling more than 70 people — refugees from Afghanistan — and they’d all be arriving in four days’ time. 

“We usually receive 75 in a year. So yeah, I was feeling anxious about asking that of the team.”

The next morning, Cragg gathered the NCC team on Zoom to explain what was happening, and ultimately ask: “What do you think?” 

“The response was amazing. It was very heartening that everyone was like… ‘of course we’re going to do this.’”

Then they got to work. For Cragg, that meant bringing back former staff members Tamara Hoogerdyk and Jack Gillan to lead the work. For team member Samar Sallam, it meant finding hotels and restaurants that would be ready to house and feed the families when they arrived on Friday. 

This is the story of how that team helped tens of refugees settle in Canada.

When Ajil al-Mousa and his family arrived in Canada from Lebanon in 2016, he cried all the way to Peterborough. 

“It was very bad. You don’t know what to expect.”

They were met by the NCC and then taken to a shared house where newcomer families can settle in before finding accommodation of their own. Al-Mousa was reassured that he and his family were in safe hands.

Peterborough Currents spoke with al-Mousa — a Syrian refugee who has made Peterborough his home — to better understand the refugee experience of resettlement. Speaking to recently arrived refugees such as many of the Afghan families can be problematic. They’ve just experienced severe trauma, and the choice of whether to do an interview would not necessarily feel like a free one. The same resettlement workers who would relay an interview request are the same people that they rely on for their lives and safety in Canada. 

Photo of Ajil al-Mousa, outdoors.
Ajil al-Mousa came to Peterborough as a refugee from Syria in 2016, and he says the NCC has given him and his family a lot since they arrived. (Photo: LA Alfonso)

The NCC wasn’t a refugee resettlement centre until the Syrian refugee crisis that brought al-Mousa and his family to Canada. In 2016 and 2017, the NCC helped resettle 350 Syrians in Peterborough, aided by hundreds of private sponsors who helped them set up their lives in Canada. The experience of the NCC’s staff and volunteers then would prove vital for this emergency response in August 2021.

“With the Syrians, it was all kind of new for us, so it was a real learning curve,” says Tamara Hoogerdyk, who previously worked as refugee resettlement coordinator for the NCC, and returned on a temporary contract to help coordinate the resettlement of Afghan families. “This time, we had the experience.”

Fast forward a little more than five years, and the families who arrived from Afghanistan would not be staying in shared houses. COVID-19 meant that refugees were temporarily living in hotels. After weeks in quarantine, they traded the hotels of Toronto for those of Peterborough. But at least they got an NCC welcome.

Samar Sallam, a Resettlement Assistance Program (RAP) worker, had been in that Tuesday meeting. As soon as an Afghan resettlement committee was formed, she had two critical tasks: find families somewhere to stay, and to make sure they had food. 

“What I had to do directly is work on finding hotels and catering for this large number of people. Hotels didn’t have available rooms in the beginning, so we had to go step by step. You need restaurants to be ready to feed this large capacity of people,” Sallam says.

“The Peterborough community proved to be very welcoming because everyone just wanted to help. They wanted to offer special rates, special prices, and make adjustments.” Some restaurants offered to deliver their food, even when it wasn’t a service they’d usually offer. 

On the Wednesday, Hoogerdyk and other staff from the NCC gathered to talk logistics. 

They didn’t know exactly how many families they’d receive in two days’ time, nor whether they were arriving at 11 a.m. or 7 p.m. “When you’re dealing with IRCC (Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada) and something is happening very quickly, you’re playing with a lot of unknowns,” says Hoogerdyk.

“You don’t know if people are arriving in batches, if they’ve been given stipends, what their health situation is, if there are emergency needs, or what kind of paperwork they have.”

One thing they could be fairly sure of, however, was that nearly all of the families would be settling permanently in towns and cities outside of Peterborough. With Toronto and GTA RAP centres struggling at close to full capacity, the government decided to send families to Peterborough who’d indicated they’d planned to settle east of the GTA. 

This is one of the key ways in which this group of families differed from the vast majority of those that arrived from Syria. Many families already had connections in the country, with extended family and friends living here. They were more independent — helped by the fact that almost every family had at least one fluent English speaker — and they knew where they wanted to live. In Peterborough, the NCC would finish processing them and provide orientation. 

The Friday that families arrived in Peterborough had been a long time coming. In fact, as early as July, Cragg had been talking to the government about resettling Afghan refugees, laying the groundwork for this initiative.

“They were starting to [make] political commitments around it, so they wanted the sector to be ready to receive folks when they came.”

Driving the government’s efforts was the planned United States Armed Forces withdrawal from Afghanistan, which began in May and was initially due to end on Sept. 11 but was moved forwards to Aug. 31. 

As soon as U.S. troops began drawing down, the Taliban started to mobilize, setting up temporary checkpoints and permanent outposts. By August, the Taliban was “advancing on territory it hadn’t seized in two decades,” reported the Washington Post. By Aug. 13, the fall of the Afghan capital Kabul was almost inevitable; the Taliban had just overrun Kandahar and Herat, the country’s second- and third-largest cities, respectively. 

“When Kabul fell, that really changed the course of how the resettlement initiative would play out. The earlier commitment from the federal government had been around people who’ve worked directly with the federal government, through the Canadian military mission in Afghanistan. But then it became more of a humanitarian situation much more quickly,” says Cragg.

Many of the families who arrived went through third countries, where they transited on before flying to Canada. They quarantined in Toronto before arriving in Peterborough throughout the day on Friday Sept. 17, which meant, unlike most arrivals, they weren’t jetlagged and were a little bit more settled. 

Sixty-one refugees arrived that day. For the NCC team, this meant starting to deal with many of the unknowns Hoogerdyk had to prepare for. Workstations were set up to register people and process documents. One of the NCC’s key tasks is to also help get people access to services, like opening a bank account and access to healthcare. 

“Because they’d been in a hotel with some contact with IRCC, there weren’t too many urgent, immediate needs,” Hoogerdyk says. “But mostly, [when they first arrive] they won’t tell you, unless it’s really something that’s urgent, because they don’t know you.” Trust takes time to build. 

Photo of Samar Sallam, indoors. She holds a small Canada flag.
Samar Sallam, a Resettlement Assistance Program worker, said that the Peterborough community was very welcoming to the families who arrived from Afghanistan. “Everyone just wanted to help,” she says. (Photo: LA Alfonso)

Once families were processed they moved into hotels. “I was the connection point between the hotels, the families, the staff members who were driving people to their hotel, and the catering,” Sallam says. Allocating rooms wasn’t straightforward. Not all the rooms were ready at once, and families had diverse needs depending on their size and how many children they had. 

“Hotels were very understanding and accommodated as best as they can,” Sallam says.

The first few days in any new country are disorienting, but refugees feel this most keenly. Arriving in Canada is less a positive choice about the country you’re flying to and more about the necessity of leaving where you are. 

“It can feel very confusing,” al-Mousa says. “You don’t know what to expect. The rules are different. You don’t know the language.”

For the al-Mousa family, the NCC’s then-refugee resettlement coordinator Michael VanDerHerberg brought a police officer to the house to explain what’s legal and what’s not, and no doubt to demystify the different kind of relationship people on the whole in Canada have with the police. “A lot of people don’t even know what a street looks like in Canada, or how to cross the street, so this was really helpful.”

In the days after the Afghan refugee families settled in the hotels, the NCC, too, was starting their own process of orientation for the new arrivals. Orientation can involve everything from explaining the law and Charter of Rights and Freedom, to talking about Canadian animals and the different seasons. 

Al-Mousa was prepared for a lot of this with courses he took in Lebanon. While many of the people from Afghanistan too were familiar with Canada, having worked with its military and government, it still proved invaluable. 

“Orientation is something we give to all new arrivals through the government RAP program,” says the NCC’s transition settlement worker Salwa Mirgani. The orientation programming explains how the health system works, refugees’ financial situation, what they get and what they’re entitled to, explains Mirgani. 

Government-assisted refugees sign a year-long financial agreement with the government for their first year in Canada, and then they are expected to support themselves. They also receive federal health insurance, which covers dental, eye-care, physiotherapy and medication above and beyond OHIP. For al-Mousa, this coverage — and the NCC’s help in getting families access to services — was vital during his family’s first few weeks in Canada. 

“My mom, she got sick, and we had to take her to the hospital. We don’t speak the language. We don’t know where the hospital is. We called NCC right away and they assisted us – they called the ambulance to pick up my mom.”

Orientation services are designed to give refugee families the tools to navigate and understand Canadian life and culture. 

“We talk about Canadian law, how to abide by it and how it is different, and we talk about life in Canada — the seasons, the dress code, what to expect, how to look for the weather.” In some cases people would say they know what they are being told, but Mirgani is always keen to remind people that knowledge is not universal; there are always others who don’t know what you do, and vice versa. “And when I [remind them], it brings a question in your head, so our discussion would become lively.”

One area in which Mirgani was able to enlighten and reassure Afghan families is on LGBTQ issues, which are extremely unfamiliar to many families coming from an ultraconservative culture such as Afghanistan’s. For Mirgani, it is important to explain that the same system and laws that protects the LGBTQ community is also there protect to refugees from racism and discrimination.

Throughout this time, Hoogerdyk and Gillan were checking in regularly with families. Many were restless, frustrated that they’ve moved to Peterborough only to stay in hotels again. 

“Most of these people are professionals. We had two doctors, a lawyer, a journalist. These guys are used to being in charge — not being able to move forward or do anything for themselves was quite frustrating for them,” Hoogerdyk says.“And of course, there’s always anxiety for people left behind, back home.”

Hoogerdyk explains though that you build trust by really listening to their needs, the issues they are having day-to-day and doing all you can to address them. It might be making sure the air conditioning unit is working properly in somebody’s room, or finding them a working kettle. 

“[Building trust] is just a natural process that comes when you are attentive to their needs. … Where you’ve shown up, you’ve listened and you fix the problem that they brought to your attention. 

“It’s really important that when you’re doing the work, not just to do what you need to do and what you feel is important, but to listen to what they think is important, and address it when you can.” 

Compared to many other refugees who arrive, this group of families was much higher functioning (although Mirgani emphasizes that it shouldn’t mean things are that much easier). At least one person in every family spoke fluent English — many people had worked or interacted with the Canadian military in Afghanistan — and they had extended networks of family and friends in Canada. 

“Our goal is to make clients independent,” Sallam says, explaining that having a more independent group means staff are always a little closer to completing their job.

For Hoogerdyk, the lack of a language barrier meant that she felt better able to engage with their clients and build better relationships, without having to talk through interpreters. For Sallam, the extended family networks helped when it came to finding accommodation.

Usually, the NCC would help families find their accommodation. But, with almost all of the families looking elsewhere, extended friend and family networks helped where the NCC couldn’t be involved. They found apartments and houses, or vouched for them with landlords if families didn’t have proof of income yet.

While these pre-existing networks were helping find the newly arrived families accommodation, Sallam helped families by contacting rental companies and landlords about houses and apartments they’d found, and assisted with rental applications. As families found their new homes and began moving out of Peterborough, there were also key RAP services to finish up such as an exit interview, where refugees prove they understand everything their agreement with the government entails. Finally, the NCC passed families on to RAP centres that are local to their new homes, so they don’t lose vital services. 

Moving on from Peterborough and starting their new lives is overwhelmingly a positive moment, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t sadness for many of the families. 

“This was their first welcome to Canada and they’re not going to forget it,” Hoogerdyk says. A lot of the families all moved out of the hotels at the same time, so the NCC staff went down to say goodbye and take group photos. “They’re very appreciative, but eager to move on.”

Nearly half a year after arriving in Canada, many Afghan refugee families will still be putting their lives back together, and establishing a new life in Canada, too. Eight of those people will be doing that in Peterborough, while the rest settle further afield in Ontario. That means language classes, school and work — all of which al-Mousa has been through.

He finished school in 2019, which involved regular English classes, and he’s now studying Educational Support at Fleming College.

“NCC was so nice with us and they give us a lot, so I am trying to give something back for them. When the new refugees come to the school, they don’t speak the language. [Hopefully] they would find somebody who speaks their language and be excited to learn through this,” al-Mousa says.  

For Afghan families who’ve recently settled in Canada, he offered these reassuring words: “If you follow the rules and learn the language, you’ll be on the right road, and your goal is in front of you.”

Sallam says that she enjoyed working with this group of people, and that she found the work very fulfilling, because she “felt the hardships they went through, and I felt how safe they are now.”

“They are very appreciative [and] they appreciate their presence in Canada. I was honoured to be one of the first contacts with them in Canada. 

“I’m very happy when somebody sends me a WhatsApp to tell me ‘we’re going to language classes’ or ‘the kids are going to school now.’”

And what about Cragg’s moment of anxiety?

“We had such a depth of knowledge about how to do it, and that was just confirmed in spades on the Friday [when families arrived]. To see that level of thoughtfulness and organization in that team.”

Reflecting on the work, Cragg was philosophical. In addition to the 71 refugees that the NCC received in total through the special Afghan initiative, it has received 85 refugees from other countries, too, as well as additional refugees who’ve arrived through private sponsorships. The news of Afghan refugees arriving garnered media coverage in a way that the regular work of refugee resettlement agencies doesn’t, and he’s keen that narratives don’t overshadow the reality.

“There are over 20 million refugees in the world right now, many of whom have been living as refugees for years or even their entire lives. Canada accepts [fewer] than 40,000 per year. It is great that the Afghan crisis is getting a lot of attention and that Canada has stepped up to support Afghans but clearly from a global perspective we need to do more. 

“I do worry that the focus on refugees risks equating all immigrants with refugees and over- simplifying the complexities of both of these groups. Refugees are a small proportion of all immigration to Canada, yet they attract a lot of the media attention in terms of this idea that all immigrants need charity. Rather than focusing on charity, or how someone came to Canada, I think we need to focus on empowering all newcomers to Canada so that they can thrive. And if we do that we all benefit — economically, culturally and socially.

Mirgani was philosophical, too, and underscored how the work of refugee resettlement is inspired by personal motivations, too. 

“You saw people [in Afghanistan] running, you saw people at the airport, and you feel good when you can help a little bit. You weren’t just standing by,” Mirgani says. 

“For me, as a woman … I had a specific role in helping other women escape [the Taliban]. That gives me great satisfaction – this is the absolute truth.”

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