Retirees especially wanted as refugee families look for volunteers to be the face of Canada

“We got tired of hearing people say lousy things about refugees,” says Lynn Kenn. “That’s why Bob and I signed up to be volunteers. We figured we could do something about it instead of just talking and getting upset. We think of it as putting our money where our mouth is.” 

About a dozen newcomers arrive in Kingston every month as Government-assisted refugees and the best way for them to get settled is with community support. KEYS Job Centre is asking for at least 40 volunteers to support and befriend an influx of Afghans, Somalis, Syrians and folks from Ethiopia, Eritrea, and lately, Turkey. Says KEYS volunteer coordinator Tarek Elmaghraby: “We receive families of every size, from very large families that need a lot of support to young people who arrive alone, without any family or social connections, who benefit so much from support teams.”

Family support teams, says Elmaghraby, act as friends and neighbours: “Our volunteers create social connections and become the face of Canada. They eat supper together, help with language and homework, go on outings and hang out at the gym or the library.” Volunteers come from every age and background. The current roster includes those new to Kingston who want to create connections for themselves as well as for newcomers. It includes couples who like contributing as a team … and even students. Recently a 22-year-old Queen’s student who has been active for three years met her second family.

Right now, there is an emphasis on finding seniors and retired people to volunteer. Volunteer coordinator Tarek Elmaghraby explains that this comes directly from newcomers themselves: “Those new to Canada carry fears that they will experience discrimination. They are looking for ‘elders,’ those who are wise and experienced. They figure elders will be more accepting. Not to mention,” says Tarek with a smile, “they believe retired people have more time, which they want!” Please see the stories of volunteers Rick Jackson and Brandy May below.

Lynn Kenn and her husband Bob signed up in December 2018 when KEYS put out an appeal. At that time, 50 newcomers had arrived within the span of a few weeks and KEYS went public with a request for help – in terms of dollars and gift cards – and family support team help as well.

Lynn and Bob took the basic orientation and then an intercultural competency orientation and began working with a family in the summer. They were matched with a middle-aged Syrian couple who have a teenage son and whose grown son and daughter arrived in Kingston with their own families at the same time. “We’ve ended up part of a big family,” laughs Lynn Kenn who is newly retired. “We have a lot of fun with the family and they love coming up to our cottage.”

KEYS has been receiving government-assisted refugees since 2016, when Canada renewed its response to the Syrian crisis. Already more than 400 people have arrived in Kingston. A new five-year contract with the federal government will begin in April and so arrivals are expected to stay steady. Along with Kingston Community Health Centres (KCHC), all the necessary supports are in place to assist these newcomers to find homes and settle in their new community. But feeling that Kingston is really a new home goes beyond the logistics of accessing services, finding work or enrolling in school.

According to Madeleine Nerenberg, Manager of Newcomer Services at KEYS, volunteers are essential ingredients to the success of newcomers’ transition to a new community. “True integration must be a community-wide effort. The financial and volunteer support from the community offered to this unique group of newcomers makes a world of difference” she says. She notes that already more than 200 people have stepped forward to serve on support teams in the last two years. This has had ripples.

“A wonderful dynamic exists between families and volunteers,” she says. “The kindness, care and connections our clients receive from volunteers are life-changing, but we know that the relationships generated are often life-changing for the volunteers as well!' She adds: 'The families and individuals who have survived war, forced displacement and persecution are amazing people with fascinating stories and new and exciting opportunities. It is deeply rewarding to be part of their journeys while working together to make Kingston a diverse and inclusive place to work and live.”

Volunteer commitments are eight months to a year and new volunteer orientations occur every month. Register here for our next orientation session.

Donation funds so helpful

For those who don’t have the time to volunteer, another way to help newcomers is through donations of money or gift cards. While KEYS is grateful for all donations, we are not able to accept offers of food, clothing and furniture at this time. As a registered charity, monetary (both cash and gift card) donations are welcome, and receipts can be issued for donations over $20. Donors can be sure that every dollar they give will be directed to address newcomer needs. Gift cards to affordable department stores, grocery stores or malls let the newcomers buy the groceries or goods that suit their family needs. Cash donations will be used for emergency needs, including dental help.

For more information about volunteering and donating:

  • Tarek Elmaghraby, KEYS Newcomer Volunteer Coordinator, tareke@keys.ca, 613-546-5559 ext.266

For more information about the arriving families and the response of KEYS and KCHC:

 

Rick Jackson is a retired professor from the School of Business at Queen’s. Having heard through friends about the need for volunteers to assist with the large influx of refugees to Kingston, he decided to help out and ended up being paired with a young man from Afghanistan who arrived in Kingston without any family, eager to build a full life in Canada. Rick has helped the young man deal with overseas family events and roommate issues, has worked with him on his English-language skills and Canadian cultural understanding, and has supported him in his educational and job-seeking activities. Beyond these “tangible” things, though, he has come to see that simply “being a friend” through the very significant ups and downs of a life impacted by forced displacement is exceptionally important: “I’ve worked with foreign students for many years but this was different: it’s been particularly enriching for me to help him get on his feet – to learn a new culture and language, to meet and surmount his challenges. I highly recommend the job!”

 

It’s been two years since Brandy May started working with an Eritrean mother and her four children. Brandy has delighted to be a sort of grandmother to the “precious little brood” and is so proud of the mom’s accomplishments. Working with this family has been an immense contrast to the day job that Brandy recently retired from – working in Corrections. Nevertheless, this opportunity is completely in keeping with her commitment to treating every person with respect, dignity, kindness, and her belief that all people can use or enhance their life skills and resilience to succeed with a better life.

Brandy’s support was pivotal to the family she volunteered with, offering a consistent presence and lots of fun. She met the family weekly, helping with English language, sleuthing out books and bilingual resources, even being there through the birth of the youngest. “I’m amazed at the progress this family has made,” she says. “The woman knew almost no English and now, in two years, can hold entire conversations. The kids are delightful and have bright futures. It has been a joy to be involved.”

She concludes “It provided me the pleasure of cheering for their success while being humbled by their steely determination and hard work to 'fit in' and find their meaningful place in a new country and culture - and climate!”