Together Project

A First Friend in Canada: Former Settlement Worker Jennilee Austria Reflects on Together Project


After I graduated from university, my first job was as a School Settlement Worker in North York, Etobicoke, and Rexdale.

For many newcomers, I was the only settlement worker they’d ever met.

I’d been trained to help them navigate the myriad of resources across Toronto, ranging from housing to employment to youth groups and more.

But when I saw how much they struggled in English, I explained my role in the simplest way possible: “I’m your first friend in Canada!”

As a person of colour who was only a few years older than them, many newcomer students immediately latched onto me.

They would contact me at all hours of the night, sending me Facebook messages and leaving me rambling voicemails and e-mails whenever they wanted to talk. At lunchtime, so many of them would pile into my office that I started to run lunch-hour workshops to give them something to do.

I was an important first friend in their lives, but still, I always felt like I wasn’t doing enough.

Awake At Night

Sometimes, my students had arrived in Canada with their families, but other times, they were refugee youth who were here on their own.

I worried about them all of the time.

Who would make sure that they weren’t always alone? Who would tour them around their new neighbourhood and show them the mosque, the community centre, the soccer field? Who would teach them how to take the bus to the dentist and the doctor? Who would visit their apartment and make a list of the things they needed?

As a School Settlement Worker, I could load my young clients up with armfuls of maps, brochures, business cards, and flyers; I could invite incredible guest speakers into their ESL classrooms; I could sign them up for a myriad of community programs and hope that they would actually go.

But beyond that, there was only so much I could do.

As much as I gave, I always felt like they needed more. My worries about them kept me awake on so many nights.

The Search For Something More

That feeling is what drove me to move on. But even after I’d stopped being a settlement worker, I always sought out roles that I considered “settlement-work adjacent.”

I became a journalist to report on youth leadership. I became a public speaker to show educators how to make schools more welcoming places for newcomers. I became a community-based researcher to give teachers facts about their students’ hardships, successes, and dreams. I even did a short contract at the Immigration and Refugee Board to find out what the other side of the refugee experience was like.

And through it all, I became an author so that whenever my worries about newcomers continued to keep me awake at night, I could find solace in writing it all out.

The “In-Between Moments”

When I found out about Together Project, I knew that this was an initiative that my newcomers would have loved.

When I applied, the first thing I said in my cover letter was that I was smiling as I wrote it. I was so excited to find out that something like this existed— a program to ensure that someone would continue to be there for newcomer refugees even after they stepped out of the settlement office.

Together Project volunteers can show newcomers around the neighbourhood, set up weekly check-ins, and tour them all over the city. And not just to cover basic necessities, but to make sure that they have fun, too.

Our steering committee member, Kate Bate, calls these “the in-between moments” – the times of recreation and socialization “where real life unfolds.”

I love that our Together Proejct volunteers see the value in these in-between moments, and are making such a big impact on newcomers as they get integrated into their new Canadian lives.

As of today, I’m proud to announce that Together Project has matched 990 volunteers with 895 newcomer refugees in 254 matches. And by next week’s National Volunteer Week, we’ll be onboarding our 1000th volunteer!

While a settlement worker may be a newcomer’s first friend in Canada, Welcome Groups are proof of why it’s so wonderful to have more than just one friend.

In short, this is a program that just may help settlement workers sleep better at night.


Jennilee Austria is the Communications Coordinator at Together Project. Connect with her over Together Project’s social media accounts on Instagram, TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.

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