What inspired you to get involved in Together Project?
Three main reasons.
The first reason is my gratitude for Canada. My parents immigrated to Canada from Greece when I was very young and we have found it to be such a wonderful and kind country full of opportunities. At the age of 15, I decided that I wanted to give back to Canada for the wonderful life it has offered to my family and me, and I’ve been volunteering in different ways since then.
Secondly, there are parallels in this type of volunteering to my family’s own experiences when we first arrived in Canada. We were sponsored, as my parents were skilled workers and left a country in turmoil; it was a military state with many citizen rights taken away – things you don’t see in Canada.
Finally, I wanted to nullify some of the prejudice that I was hearing about in Canada when the new wave of Syrian refugees started to arrive. I couldn’t believe that people who I knew had come to Canada as immigrants themselves wanted to close the door to other new people and not provide them with the same opportunities and stability that Canada offers.
These are the three main reasons I would cite for volunteering with the Together Project.
What was it like when you arrived as a newcomer to Canada?
We were fortunate enough to have sponsors who helped us when we arrived. They taught us simple things like how to dress appropriately for harsh Canadian winters. We had an advantage because we had these individuals to mentor us. They were also our advocates, people who told us what our rights and responsibilities were. Now I want to provide that same advantage that was given to me to other newcomers so Canada can continue through them also to be the great country that it is.
Can you tell us about your two matches with the Together Project?
Most importantly I found in general that both families were appreciative of whatever we did for them and grateful to be in Canada.
In my first match I worked with a team of individuals who did not know each other. I was the oldest member. So it was refreshing and inspiring to work with younger people than myself on a common goal. We were matched with a mother and adult son. I got to know new people that I normally would not meet and it was a great experience getting to know both the volunteer team and family we were matched with. We were fortunate to have two interpreters on our team. There were many activities like going to the park, having coffee at a bakery etc. that we had as this match took place last year before the pandemic. There were also many medical appointments to attend.
For my second match, I decided to put together a Welcome Group myself of some family, friends and colleagues. In this group we bring all sorts of different backgrounds and experiences that include those from the medical and education fields. One of our female team members was an air traffic controller in Jordan. After some consultations we all decided we would prefer to work with a family with young children so we are matched right now with a family that has children ranging from five years old to their early twenties. One of the children has special needs and our groups find it quite satisfying assisting with medical appointments and documents.
We are all very fortunate to have a Welcome Group that is available at any time to share the work. What we have done is divided up the work into different portfolios so that it makes it easier for us to organize but we support one another no matter what the task maybe.
How has your group navigated language barriers in your matches?
We are fortunate to have so many technological applications today to help us communicate. We practice English over WhatsApp and in person. For example, the children in the family wanted help with their homework so before COVID we met up with them at a local library to help them. I also went with some members of the family to apply for jobs where they needed my help with English language as many of our team members have also helped with medical appointments and completion of various paperwork.
We have learnt to speak slowly with hand gestures, and use simple sentences to communicate. We also have a fantastic interpreter to help.
The interpreter members of a team are very essential and add the human element that technology has yet to fully achieve.
During COVID how has your support for the family changed?
We have coped quite well during COVID, we are communicating weekly at this point with the family but of course these are all virtual meetings. We have had to get creative in how we spend time with the family now. One thing we did all together was an online cooking session where everyone got the same ingredients and we made pizzas together over FaceTime video.
We have had to manage some issues with the family during COVID as well, as one of the family members had to go to the emergency room and because of the precautions we could not be there with them in the hospital. We’ve had our interpreter join in several virtual doctor appointments to translate information for the family and help them navigate the healthcare system. We always follow up with the family afterwards too.
Just recently we had the opportunity to have a socially distanced meet up with the family in their backyard, it was lovely to see them again and the vegetables they are growing.
Do you have any advice for future volunteers with Together Project?
Together Project has an excellent program. It provides a great opportunity to help people but you are not alone. I’m not just referring to the orientation and training support that Together Project provides, but also the staff support. The training helped me understand how the refugee process works, about vulnerability, and fostering autonomy. There are also many resources available through Together Project’s website, which I encourage every volunteer to look at, like the language practice guide which has tips as basic as speak slowly and be non-judgmental.
Another piece of advice is to work closely with your team and empower the family you are matched with by asking them how you can help rather than suggesting things to them. Get out of your comfort zone and challenge yourself to do something worthwhile. Help someone who is different than you.
One of the reasons I volunteer is because I believe in the importance of being heard in silence. What I mean by this is instead of verbalizing your opinions you actually express them through your actions.
Interview by Natasha Comeau