As the first Peer Navigator at Women’s College Hospital’s Crossroads Clinic, Semhar Musael is passionate about helping refugee newcomers settle in Canada.
But before starting her career at the Crossroads Clinic, she was a Welcome Group Program volunteer— a position that she still continues today.
“I’m a volunteer with Together Project, but now, I’m also making referrals to the Welcome Group Program from Women’s College Hospital,” she said. “It’s quite a transformation from being a volunteer and now working side by side with Together Project staff!”
We sat down with Semhar to discuss her passion for community work, her duties as a Peer Navigator, and her journey from Ethiopia to Canada.
In her hometown of Addis Ababa, Semhar grew up as a self-described “guarded private school student.” But when she worked for a research project that sent her into the slums to evaluate HIV prevalence among commercial sex workers, she saw the children and was forever changed.
After going to Italy to study Anthropology of Migration, she returned to start a non-governmental organization with a friend. Immediately, thirty children signed up for services.
“We decided to find them tutors and feed them because so many children were coming to school without breakfast and lunch, and they were beginning to faint,” she said.
“Currently, there is a program with the Addis Ababa City administration to feed children at the school, but at the time when we were implementing the program, there was none.”
This experience led her to find more ways to serve others— even as a newcomer in Canada.
Semhar remembers her hardships upon arrival in Toronto— even though her situation was very different from that of the people she helps.
“I came as a 32-year-old wife of an international student,” she said. “I had a work permit but I wasn’t able to access health care. It was a challenge to figure out how to survive.”
As an English speaker, she quickly found work at a car dealership, but knew that she wanted something more.
“My goal was to work in the immigrant and refugee sector. I decided that volunteering with this community would be my first step.”
Her friend from Ethiopia, a Together Project newcomer who became a Welcome Group volunteer, encouraged her to apply to volunteer.
“I knew firsthand that the system was very difficult to navigate, even with my Western exposure and my language capability,” Semhar said. “Imagine for those people who have a language barrier, literacy gap, technological gap, who don’t have family here— it’s like taking a fish from a pond and putting it on the ground. It’s so difficult.”
After learning how to navigate services in Toronto, she was eager to help others.
“I wanted to share the knowledge that I had. That’s my first reason to volunteer for Together Project,” she said. “The second reason was for me to get practical experience with the refugee and immigrant sector.”
In her first Welcome Group, Semhar was matched with a family who asked her to help the wife learn English while other volunteers focused on the husband.
“We were so committed, so collaborative,” she said. “We were doing so many things: teaching them English, helping with employment. I was so happy with the outcome.”
And when the wife gave birth prematurely, the Welcome Group banded together to help.
“We had a campaign to collect children’s stuff, clothes, equipment,” she said. “I was able to get her a supply of diapers from the community centre in Scarborough that has a diaper bank. I registered her to the New Mom Project and we went all over the city to collect the stuff. We were so proud of ourselves.”
Semhar has also provided interpretation assistance during Together Project surveys.
“Since I speak both Tigrinya and Amharic, it’s easy for me to connect with people from Ethiopia or Eritrea,” she said. “I’m trying to be a provider for the community because I believe that this community has been so helpful for me, too.”
When Together Project staff learned about a Peer Navigator job opportunity at Women’s College Hospital, they encouraged Semhar to apply.
“I got my professional references from Anna and Andrew,” she said. “I was two months postpartum when I started this job, but in the end, I accomplished both of my aims: serving the community and, at the same time, getting a job in my field out of it!”
At Women’s College Hospital, Semhar is responsible for supportive listening, providing trauma-informed care, and making referrals to resources needed by refugee newcomers.
“Crossroads Clinic is a transitional clinic that serves refugees and newcomers for approximately 2 years,” she said. “We have a medical care team and a mental health care team for comprehensive health care. My role here is to do the groundwork between patients, health care, and the community service providers.”
“Because of language barriers, because of being newcomers, lack of social connections and things like that, people tend to be lost,” she said. “They miss their healthcare sessions with specialists. I can make appointments, I can refer them to programs for housing support, employment support. If they have an issue, they will be connected with me with a referral from the healthcare provider. And we try to work things through.”
Semhar is especially grateful for the staff she works with.
“We have a wonderful team with the physicians who are working tirelessly to solve problems,” she said. “They’re not there because of the job— they’re there because of their humanity.”
When Semhar meets refugee newcomers at Crossroads Clinic who can benefit from the Welcome Group Program, she is happy to tell them about Together Project.
“When I do referrals, I make sure they have more than one need,” she said. “Just socializing is good, but because I know what Together Project actually provides, I try to guide their interest into system navigation, language support. I tell them, ‘You can work on securing employment opportunities, you can learn English, you can go places with your volunteers.’ The fact that I volunteer helps me to do the referrals.”
As both a volunteer and as someone who connects newcomers to the program, Semhar knows that commitment is key.
“I try to inform the people who are being referred to be a client for the Welcome Group Program that there should be a commitment on both sides, as the volunteers are providing their time and being committed,” she said.
“If the clients are not committed enough, the assignment will not be a success even though there is a commitment from the volunteers’ side.”
Even with a full-time position helping refugee newcomers, Semhar is still interested in helping others as a Together Project volunteer.
“I want to continue volunteering because it’s giving back to the community. The job is something that I do for financial benefit. But making a significant impact in people’s’ lives for free— that’s what I do for mental satisfaction.”
And having access to many resources as a Peer Navigator helps her provide valuable guidance in the Welcome Group Program.
“Doing this job makes me a good candidate for Together Project because I know so many resources,” she said. “When you compare it from the starting point of my volunteering, I had a passion to serve, but I had to work so hard to get the resources. But now, it’s easy for me to get resources for the matched family. I have them at the tip of my fingers at this moment!”