In March 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions set in, Kathleen began her journey as a Welcome Group volunteer.
With everything moved online, she was part of the first wave of volunteers to complete their entire matches remotely.
Kathleen had previous experience as a member of a sponsorship group that sponsored a Syrian family in Mississauga, finding them a place to live, and supporting them through their first year.
But because the family could communicate in English and already had friends and relatives in Mississauga, Kathleen found that they didn’t need much support.
“I was a little disappointed because I had more to offer,” she said.
With her willingness to give more, Kathleen became a Welcome Group volunteer at Together Project.
Kathleen’s first match was with an East African couple who were waiting to be reunited with their children whom they had to leave behind.
Since it was the height of the pandemic, they could only connect remotely.
“It was mostly just phone calls, sharing recipes,” Kathleen said. To get creative, the volunteers even broadcast a Yoga with Adriene video from YouTube and did a remote yoga session.
“We stayed apart but we did it together,” she said.
Still, Kathleen felt the need to do more.
“I remember thinking at the time, ‘We’re only calling her once a week; is this enough?’ But she really seemed to want friendship,” said Kathleen.
“Our match explained that there were times when she was feeling down, missing her children so much, not knowing when the refugee hearing was going to be, but being able to speak to us really helped her,” she said.
“Because we were able to help her through a hard time, to listen, to sympathize, to try to be encouraging, it made a difference for her.”
After the match, Kathleen was touched when the newcomer woman did a podcast with Together Project to talk about her positive experience.
“She spoke so kindly about our group,” said Kathleen. “It showed how much our weekly connection mattered to her.”
Today, the newcomer woman from Kathleen’s match has also become a Welcome Group volunteer who supports other refugee newcomers, and she and Kathleen have stayed in touch, exploring downtown together and exchanging recipes.
And now, as the children prepare to reunite with their parents in Canada, Kathleen has already had video calls with them to introduce herself. When they arrive, she is excited to welcome them.
“It’s such a nice thing to be part of the happy moments, even if it happens later on,” she said. “Their happiness is my happiness.”
In Kathleen’s second match, she was in a Welcome Group for a Spanish-speaking single mother with two young children.
Through her match, she saw how much the pandemic was impacting single parents. When the children moved to remote learning, the mother had to leave her job to stay home with them.
“That was eye-opening for me,” said Kathleen. “The pandemic hadn’t really affected me, but that’s when I realized that this is really hard— she had a job, but she had to quit for her childrens’ education.”
Kathleen’s Welcome Group helped with a range of tasks.
“Sometimes, it was about deciphering mail or bills she got,” she said. “We even did a three-way call with her to help her cancel a telecom service. We were helping her with tech, and when everything went online, we saw that being a newcomer had become even harder.”
After getting her a second-hand laptop, the group was able to register her for online computer classes and a course to learn about the refugee hearing process.
“There were a lot of needs, so we were very involved,” she said.
After the match, they kept in touch, and recently, Kathleen was overjoyed to learn that the family’s refugee claim had been accepted.
“We’d been there for the low moments, so the high moments are a real highlight,” she said.
In her current match, Kathleen and her Welcome Group have started supporting an East African woman who is new to Toronto.
“We’re trying to encourage her, telling her about different opportunities, and gently trying to help her to move forward,” she said.
With pandemic restrictions easing, Kathleen is glad that they’ve been able to meet for walks outdoors.
During a neighbourhood tour, Kathleen even showed the newcomer a Little Free Library, surprising her by demonstrating how she could get free books whenever she wanted.
“I want to let her know about the nice things around her and keep her spirits up,” she said.
As a three-time Welcome Group volunteer, Kathleen’s main advice for volunteers is to observe the rhythm of the newcomer before overwhelming them with resources.
“Sometimes the newcomers have experienced a loss of control in their lives, so during our time together, they need to be the one in control,” she said. “There’s a lot going on in their lives, and we have to work with their rhythm and what they’re able to do at that time.”
Kathleen says that being in a match is not like being in a race; there’s no expectation to finish everything if it isn’t feasible.
“They might be in a really down time, waiting for their refugee hearing for 2.5 years or more, and they’re getting fed up, and they’re not motivated,” she said.
“We have to meet people where they’re at. Just show them that you’re there and you’re willing to show them things and take initiative if they want it.”
When reflecting on this year’s National Volunteer Week theme, “Empathy in Action,” Kathleen said that it was about taking action.
“You see the headlines about the war in Ukraine, the trouble in Afghanistan, and you think, ‘What can I do way over here?’ But you can do something practical that widens your perspective.”
Although she was born in Canada, Kathleen has lived overseas in Australia, Slovenia, and Chile.
“These experiences gave me different perspectives about what it was like to go to another country— not having to flee a homeland, but going where the systems are different. This gave me empathy and perspective that I bring to my matches.”
Kathleen says that for potential volunteers without international experience, being a Together Project volunteer is especially valuable.
“Some volunteers have spent time overseas, and others were refugees themselves or are the children of refugees,” she said. “But for those of us whose families have been in Canada for awhile, it’s easy to get insulated from what it’s like for newcomers and the challenges they face.”
“You’ll understand the headlines a bit more: how expensive accommodation is; how someone on Ontario Works still has to go to the food bank; how with healthcare, they can’t get everything they need. It becomes a lot more real.”
After recruiting three friends to volunteer, Kathleen is an enthusiastic ambassador.
“I would certainly recommend it for everyone interested in supporting refugees in a practical, hands-on way,” she said.
“Together Project is a great opportunity for individuals or groups who don’t have the capability to raise thousands of dollars to sponsor a family,” she said. “This is more about the friendship side, helping newcomers feel welcome in their new home.”
Interview by Jennilee Austria