Afghan Newcomer Zamarin and Group Lead Natasha on the Welcome Group Experience
When Natasha Comeau ended her role as Together Project’s Program and Communications Coordinator, she was eager to see the other side of Together Project and volunteer as a Welcome Group Lead.
“As a coordinator, you’re looking at big pictures, anything and everything that could come up with a newcomer,” she said. “But when you’re looking at one family, their needs are super specific.”
Upon meeting her first match, she was surprised by their succinct list of priorities.
“I was ready to tackle a hundred different things, and then I realized that they needed help with like, three things,” she said. “It’s given the group an opportunity to really focus on what’s important to the couple.”
One Match Priority: Higher Education
Natasha’s Welcome Group was matched with Zamarin, an Afghan who had worked as an administrative assistant in a government position in Kabul, and her partner, Milad, who had worked as a civil engineer.
After arriving in Toronto, Zamarin and Milad found work in settlement services and finance, but they were eager to explore their higher education options— something the group was more than happy to do.
“They’re both highly skilled and have worked in professional jobs for years, and they both want Masters degrees,” said Natasha. “Luckily, in the group, we all have Masters degrees from different universities: University of Toronto, York University, and Toronto Metropolitan University. It worked out nicely that we could talk about those experiences.”
Dividing Up The Research
Beyond higher education, Zamarin and Milad appreciated the way that the three volunteers took charge of different aspects of their priorities.
“They divided the work, and one of them would look for universities, admissions and criteria, and the other would look for vacancies in housing, and then the other was looking at the job market,” Zamarin said.
Natasha added that creating a schedule was key.
“Early on, it was really important to have a set time to meet every Wednesday at 7:00,” said Natasha. “Whether it was fifteen minutes just to check in, or an hour and a half to talk about travel visas, it really helped to have something set so we didn’t fall off track.”
After six weeks, the weekly meetings gave way to longer, bi-monthly sessions.
“Once we divvied up what their needs were, and who could work on what, it became meeting every two, three weeks,” said Natasha.
The Importance of Job Search Support
Zamarin’s emphasizes that for newcomers, finding meaningful employment is of utmost importance.
“When we first start off in Canada, there will be payments for one year, but it’s frustrating to sit back at home and do nothing,” she said. “When you get out and work, you can get physically active, earn your own money, and not wait for something free from the government once a month.”
She encourages volunteers to support refugees with job searches— even if they already have work.
“Volunteers can share who is hiring, and that can make a huge difference for a newcomer who has a job, but who isn’t perfectly happy with the job they have,” said Zamarin. “Even when I arrived, the next week, I was invited for interviews. I started working two, three months after I was settled.”
Connecting In Person
After two months, Zamarin and Milad invited the group to meet in person.
“At the end of Ramadan, we all went for dinner for Eid, which was really special,” Natasha said.
For Zamarin, it was an opportunity to share their culture with the volunteers.
“We went to a restaurant that had a buffet, and everyone had to wait to eat until after prayer time. The volunteers were waiting so long, but luckily they didn’t mind— they loved the food and we all had fun,” said Zamarin.
Since then, Natasha has been excited about showing the couple around the city. She took them around her neighbourhood in downtown Toronto, where they visited a pizzeria on the Ossington Strip.
“They love exploring the city, and we love showing them what Toronto has to offer,” said Natasha. “Soon, we’re even going to the CN Tower!”
Natasha emphasized the importance of fostering a relationship rather than only focusing on priorities.
“It’s important to build trust, making sure that the match isn’t just about checking boxes, like making a resume, finding a job,” she said. “When you’re working through those things, you’re also seeing how people are doing emotionally with the giant change of moving cultures and countries.”
She also noted that for newcomers without a long list of needs, there is still an important opportunity to listen.
“Zamarin and Milad are very capable and haven’t had a ton of major issues, but they’ve told us what it was like leaving Afghanistan and being apart from their family,” Natasha said.
“These are tough conversations that they wouldn’t have been comfortable having with us if we hadn’t had the time to build trust. Getting to know one another before getting into heavier topics and bigger challenges is key. Socializing builds trust.”
Zamarin’s Advice for Refugees: Pick Up the Phone
When Zamarin remembered how she was first contacted by Together Project, she laughed.
“When I first met them, they reached out with a phone call, and that was tough at first, because there were scammers that would call me,” she said.
“First, I didn’t give them much importance because we were taught on the first day of our arrival, you will be receiving scammers’ calls, don’t share this, and don’t share that. But when I heard that this is a project that helps, we had two or three calls together, and they shared information with me, I found it was quite helpful.”
Throughout the ups and downs of settling in Canada, Zamarin has been grateful to receive support from a Welcome Group.
“We really appreciate the volunteers,” she said. “In a city like Toronto, where people don’t talk for free, the volunteers are helping people who are new, and that’s something that we will be thankful for forever.”
Interview by Jennilee Austria