From the ancient UNESCO World Heritage city of Harar in eastern Ethiopia, Mohammed Ahmed came of age during a volatile time.
“In 1977, during the revolution, the emperor was overthrown, and there was a lot of killing on the streets, so we left as refugees,” he said.
He was grateful to receive a lifeline from the UNHCR: an eight-year scholarship to complete his high school and university education in Egypt.
This opportunity sparked his passion for helping others, even today.
“Because I was once a refugee and got assisted by the UNHCR, this is my payback time,” he said.
Mohammed has been a Welcome Group volunteer since 2016, making him one of Together Project’s longest-serving volunteers.
As someone who has been helping deliver and improve the Welcome Group Program over many years, Mohammed is bringing an array of volunteer expertise, community leadership, and a global vision for Together Project.
And today, we couldn’t be more honoured to announce that he is our new steering committee member!
When Mohammed reflects on his arrival in Canada in 1988, he remembers how hard it was to integrate without anyone to guide him.
“I came here single, without a penny,” he said. “An initiative like Together Project wasn’t there for me— I had to use the Yellow Pages for my basic info!”
From his apartment in Parkdale, he watched as the neighborhood received its first major wave of Ethiopian immigrants.
And when many Harari Ethiopians moved to Scarborough and needed a place to gather, Mohammed was among the leaders who opened Canada’s first dedicated Harari heritage and community space.
As Public Relations Director, Mohammed saw the Harari Heritage Center become a special place for second-generation children and immigrants alike.
“Keeping our heritage, our language, bringing our kids to learn handicrafts, keeping our culture alive— it’s an example of how a community can survive in a distant land,” he said.
But while he loved working with Ethiopians, Mohammed began to look for ways to help others outside of his community.
In 2015, when the Canadian government announced that they would accept 25,000 Syrian refugees, Mohammed saw the news coverage of families being killed or displaced and knew that he needed to do something.
His wife was on the board for the Muslim Youth Soccer League in Mississauga, where she introduced him to some Syrian families who were bringing their children to play.
He began to assist them with finding services and practicing English, but he felt that a better way to help would be through a structured program.
“I started looking for somewhere to volunteer, and one morning, on my way to work, I heard a lady being interviewed on CBC, talking about Together Project and asking for volunteers. She explained how it started, and I said, ‘This is the place I need to volunteer!’ As soon as I got to work, I enrolled right away,” he said.
“And later, when I had an interview, I spoke to Anna Hill for the first time. When I told her I was inspired by a lady on the CBC, she said, ‘Mohammed, that lady was me!’ I told her she touched my heart.”
Over his six years as a Together Project volunteer, Mohammed has seen three common issues among newcomers.
“The top one is the issue that’s very difficult to overcome: the language barrier,” he said.
“Language is not something that you can teach in six months— it just takes time. Some of them are shy, but some of them are very eager, and that’s what we want. We tell them, ‘There’s no fear in making mistakes. Just try.’”
The other issue is that newcomers are often unaware of the programs available to them.
“Together Project is filling that gap by just letting them know that there are so many services: language classes, medical services, employment programs, all those kinds of resources,” he said.
The third issue that others may cause newcomers to be pessimistic about their future in Canada.
“A lot may disagree, but there’s a myth that’s going on in Canada that when a newcomer arrives here, they are misled by negative thoughts. People will say, ‘You can’t get a job because you don’t have Canadian experience.’ That just puts the morale of the newcomer down. Instead of saying that, we should encourage the newcomer to say, ‘I don’t have experience, but what can I do about that?’”
“Culture shock and racism are challenges, but we try to let them know that in Canada, the people who succeed are not those who disassociate from the mainstream and stay in their community. I tell them, ‘Your community is good but you have to learn other languages, interact with other people, network. That’s where you can succeed.’”
As someone who has been in nine Welcome Groups, Mohammed loves collaborating with like-minded volunteers.
“What makes Together Project different from other organizations is that I’ve seen people who were very sensitive, very eager to welcome newcomers and integrate them into Canadian society, just based on the passion that they have, expecting nothing in return,” he said.
And for Mohammed, the diversity of the Welcome Group Program is a huge draw.
“You’re going to socialize with a lot of people from different backgrounds, and there’s no better place to find that than Together Project,” he said.
“When you volunteer, today it might be with Syrians, then they’ll be from Latin America, then East Africa. You’ll learn cultures, customs, global issues— it’s not just about volunteering, but it’s self-nurturing, as well. And whenever I meet someone who’s never met an Ethiopian before, or even heard of Ethiopia, I can’t stop talking!”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Mohammed and his Welcome Group would often meet newcomers in person. “I get invited to their houses to share food, I invite them to a park, enroll them in the house league,” he said.
But when match interactions had to be moved online to WhatsApp, Mohammed said it was still possible for a match to grow into a longer relationship with a family.
“Sometimes, it’s not just six months of matching,” he said. “You’re going to be building longer relationships with these families.”
As Together Project’s newest steering committee member, Mohammed has two big aspirations: one for his children, and one for the program.
“My kids have seen me volunteer, and hopefully, they’ll be influenced by what I do,” he said. “When I was nominated to be on the steering committee, I didn’t hesitate to accept. I want my four kids to volunteer at an organization— anything that can help people build their hopes and integrate into society.”
And along with hoping that his love of volunteering expands to his children, Mohammed has hopes for Together Project’s expansion.
“My vision is that Together Project will become a worldwide, global initiative,” he said. “Right now, we’re expanding to Ottawa and British Columbia. I’m glad to see Together Project grow nationally, so that one day, we can grow internationally.”
When Mohammed reflects on how Together Project has changed since he began, he sees a future without limitations.
“In a short time, from just 2016 up to now, we have almost 1000 newcomers that have been welcomed by over 1000 volunteers. Together Project is full of passionate people who are willing to listen, willing to accommodate, willing to find solutions— people who are passionate about pulling refugees out of their communities to show the diversity, the beauty of Canada.”
“If you look at the amount of work that has been done, there’s an opportunity to think bigger when we look to the future.”
Interview by Jennilee Austria