When Sara Awad arrived in Canada from Egypt in 2015, she realized that she had a big advantage over many other newcomers: she was fluent in English.
“It used to hit me so hard,” she said. “I’d see people struggling to express themselves at the school, the store, the clinic. I was struggling even without the language barrier, and I’d wonder, ‘How about them?’”
When she saw people in her building and at her sons’ school who were struggling, she began assisting them with translation, transportation and sharing community resources.
This willingness to help others is what brought Sara to volunteer with Together Project four years ago.
As a long-time Welcome Group volunteer, Sara has helped families in Mississauga, Burlington, and Scarborough. Over the years, she has found great fulfillment in volunteer service.
“When newcomers come to Canada, they have a lack of direction– it’s very cloudy, very foggy,” she said. “And it’s always great to have someone to guide you, to soothe you. Because I know that sharing the little things—that little piece of information—will save them a day or a week of looking for it.”
Sara values the meaning that being a Welcome Group volunteer has brought to her days.
“I’ve always felt that there is more to life than working, eating, sleeping, and repeat,” she said. “We have to do something to help others because we all have to grow together.”
When she remembers her frustration as a newcomer, she is driven to assist others.
“Sometimes, you feel like you’re losing control, and it’s an awful feeling,” she said. “It’s like traveling to another planet, and I really don’t want to let anyone else go through this if I can help.”
When asked about common issues she has seen among the families she meets, she spoke about social isolation.
“Some families will be very closed off,” she said. “I tell them that by reducing social isolation, they can improve their language. A lack of engagement in the community hinders their progress, their transition, their access to services.”
She advises them to reach out, especially to people from different cultures who can help them work on their skills.
A second issue that Sara often sees is a lack of motivation.
“Sometimes, newcomers will take so much time, not looking for a job, not signing up immediately for English courses,” she said. “It’s always good to be motivated and to be surrounded by positive people to encourage you to do something, to change your reality.”
Her dedication to newcomer refugees has led them to keep in touch, even years after a match has ended.
“Some of them are so friendly– they keep sending me pictures of their children, giving me updates if they got into a course,” she said. “It’s wonderful to have made so many friendships.”
For Sara, one of the highlights of being a volunteer is how close the families get.
“We helped the family to sign up for a soccer club, and I signed my kids up, too,” she said. “We used to meet up every single week, and the kids would have fun and play around. We had so much fun with them. We’re still friends today.”
But Sara notes that it hasn’t always been fun and games. She recalls a time when she had to support a newcomer through the grieving process.
“He lost his mom a few months after he landed in Canada,” she said. “He came from an area of conflict and it was too dangerous to go back. He couldn’t see the light for a long time. It was heartbreaking.”
But because Sara had also lost her parents after moving to Canada, she was able to relate to him.
“I told him, ‘I know that this is a very difficult spot, and you need a support system around you,’” she said. “For him, I tried to do my best.”
Sara notes that one of the nice things about being in a Welcome Group is the possibility of having the same volunteers stay together through different matches.
She has been in a number of matches with Mohammed, who has been in Canada for more than 40 years. “I always learn a lot from him,” she said. “I call him my brother.”
They worked so well together that they even participated in a Together Project podcast.
“It’s beautiful when you have a group of the same volunteers start a new match together, because we all understand each other’s strengths,” she said.
When asked to reflect on this year’s National Volunteer Week theme, “Empathy in Action,” Sara spoke about volunteering as a way to help someone change their situation.
“It means putting empathy into motion or taking empathy to the next level by acting on my feelings,” she said.
“We might have big hearts, and can sense other people’s feelings and truly understand what they’re going through, but we need to take action to change their reality, or at least by making it acceptable, easier and bearable,” she said. “Volunteering with Together Project has enabled me to do that.”
For potential volunteers, Sara urges them to consider all of the ways that they could help others.
“Look inside of you, and you’ll find you were blessed with so many skills,” she said.
“You take them for granted, but they’re big for someone else, like the language you speak, which could help someone fill out an application. It seems minor for you, but it might open a door for them,” she said.
“Don’t worry—you are talented and you have so many skills that you might not be aware of. Just do it and you’ll see how blessed you are.”
Interview by Jennilee Austria