Six months after Manuela Alvarez Rojas came to Canada from Colombia, she learned about Together Project at a medical appointment.
“My doctor said there was a program to connect with new people who could speak Spanish, and that they would help me get to know more about Canada, and to make new friends,” Manuela said.
At just 20 years old, she had come to Toronto alone, and was eager to practice English, to learn how to navigate the city, and to start building a network.
Through the Welcome Group Program, she was matched with four volunteers who have been instrumental in helping her feel at home over the past nine months.
Welcome Group Lead Hanna had been passionate about helping refugees since she was a university student.
“I traveled in Latin America and learned Spanish, and then I got involved in the Latin American community in Montreal,” she said.
After studying at the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University, she was interested in getting involved with refugees in Toronto.
Although she was familiar with refugee sponsorship and the group-of-five model, her interest in Together Project was piqued when she learned that volunteers provided social support for refugees.
“I remember hearing on the radio about this model where you didn’t need to have the financial support, but you could still do other types of support,” she said.
After being matched with refugee newcomers from Africa, the Middle East, and South America, Manuela was her fourth Welcome Group match.
And during her previous match, Hanna met the other volunteers who would continue on together, including Jessica Portillo.
“We got along so well, so we said, ‘Why don’t we stick together?’” Hanna said. “After all of these weeks and months, it was perfect.”
For Jessica Portillo, joining the Welcome Group Program was a way to use her lived experience to help others.
“Because I came to Canada by myself from Mexico, I wanted to share any advice I could,” she said. “So, I searched online and found Together Project during the COVID lockdown.”
With her history of going back and forth between Canada and Mexico, Jessica has been involved with Together Project as a Welcome Group volunteer and interpreter.
“I can listen to other people when they feel bad or sad,” she said. “I like to give back and help, because I’m also here on my own. This is a great opportunity to learn about different cultures, too.”
Along with two other volunteers who were instrumental in helping Manuela practice English and translate medical documents, Hanna and Jessica’s group spent the past nine months connecting with Manuela.
While they helped her enroll in adult high school, translate documents, and navigate the health and legal systems, they were quick to note Manuela’s resourcefulness.
“There’s a lot she took initiative for on her own,” Hanna said. “She was very involved with FCJ Refugee Centre, so she was very proactive.”
“During our calls, Manuela would always talk first, and say, ‘I did this, I did that’,” Jessica added. “It really helped.”
With the help of Hanna’s WhatsApp organizational skills, the group was able to meet up multiple times throughout the match.
“The first time I saw a poll on WhatsApp, I had to go on YouTube to learn how to use it because I didn’t know what to do!” Manuela said, laughing.
While they attended Together Project events at Heart Lake Conservation Park and High Park, the polls helped the group meet up at Snakes and Lattes, Nathan Phillips Square, the Music Garden, and Plaza Latina food court.
And after meeting up in-person at the Together Project picnic at High Park Nature Centre, Hanna was happy to see Manuela’s growing confidence in English.
“Sometimes, Manuela is shy to speak English if there are Spanish speakers who will hear her accent,” she said. “So at the picnic, I did a little walk, and she hung out and spoke to other people. And when I came back, she said, ‘I was speaking English to all of these people!’ It was a big pat-on-the-back moment!”
While Welcome Group matches are usually six months long, the group decided to extend the match for an added three months— and not only for Manuela’s benefit.
“We extended it to get through the winter for everyone— it wasn’t just to support Manuela,” said Hanna. “It was just nice to have the social connection!”
“Every time that we had a call, we would review the problems and issues that Manuela had,” added Jessica. “Even though she had all these problems, she would always be happy to talk to us. Manuela’s positive energy was the best for me!”
And as Manuela experienced challenges with settling in Toronto, she was glad to have the group to lean on.
“They helped me a lot, with translating, and telling me that everything was going to be okay,” she said. “And also, when I was feeling sick, I felt better with their support, because they would say, ‘You’ll feel better soon!’ It made me happy.”
Whether they were eating together, playing games, being tourists in the city, or chatting on WhatsApp, Manuela’s Welcome Group made lasting connections over the past nine months. And the experience turned out to be impactful for everyone— not just Manuela, but for the volunteers, as well.
To learn more about the Welcome Group Program, click here: www.togetherproject.ca/volunteer