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In a country that prides itself on acceptance and integration of newcomers, significant differences exist in our refugee support systems. Some newcomers have private sponsorships, while others are Government-Assisted Refugees (GARs), resettled to Canada on the recommendation of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) based on need and vulnerability. On arrival, the former are usually welcomed into established social networks, while GAR newcomers have to rely on settlement agencies for guidance and connection. GARs, who typically have lower rates of education and lower incomes to begin with, are often left feeling socially isolated in their new home.

Enter Together Project, a Toronto-based initiative of Tides Canada’s shared platform whose goal is to connect GAR newcomers and Canadians for friendship and support as part of an effort to build stronger, more inclusive communities. Together Project helps volunteers establish Welcome Groups, then matches these groups with GAR newcomer families. Welcome Groups help newcomers navigate day-to-day challenges such as accessing health care services, enrolling in school and language classes, and applying for jobs. They also introduce them to Toronto’s wealth of public spaces.

Since its inception in 2016, Together Project has made impressive strides, connecting with 40 families and establishing partnerships with organizations like the YMCA and Kids Up Front, and companies like The Ritz-Carlton, Toronto. They also conduct research projects to measure the impacts of their programming on refugee integration and to evaluate and refine their model.

Together Project Director Anna Hill with a newcomer friend in High Park, Toronto, ON. Photo: Together Project.

Together Project Director Anna Hill with a newcomer friend in High Park, Toronto, ON. Photo: Together Project.

Anna Hill, Co-founder and Project Director of Together Project, explains how the project is changing the lives of GAR newcomer families, and how leading the project has impacted her.

Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you came to work with the Together Project?
Trained as an architect, I spent the first 10 years of my career designing community projects in Los Angeles. I married a Canadian, started a family in Toronto, and decided that I wanted to focus the second half of my career on community development rather than design. I spent four years working at Park People, formerly a project on Tides Canada’s shared platform. I particularly enjoyed my outreach work in predominantly newcomer communities and my role as Program Manager of the Weston Family Parks Challenge.

Prior to my work at Together Project, I spent a year involved in the private sponsorship of a refugee newcomer family from Syria. I was awed by the family’s resilience and courage, and I met many inspired volunteers. I realized the value of social support for both privately sponsored and GAR newcomers. Since GARs are selected by UNHCR for resettlement on criteria of vulnerability, one can argue that social support is even more important for them. Hence the motivation to found Together Project.

Why do you think people should get involved with Together Project, either as supporters, volunteers, or participants?
Getting settled in a new country is easier when you have friends. In fact, research shows that access to social networks is a key determinant of long term, durable integration, which is measured by factors such as income levels, language skills, health, social attitudes, and political participation.

By forming a volunteer Welcome Group, people can actively participate in what has been referred to as the “two-way street” of integration. In this “two-way street,” newcomers adjust to their surroundings and environment, adopting Canadian culture without erasing their own. Meanwhile, Canadians adjust and make space for their new neighbours by welcoming them into their communities, making friends, and learning about and accepting the array of cultures intermingling within Canadian society.

Together Project’s Welcome Group model provides an opportunity for high-impact refugee newcomer support without the required financial commitment of the private sponsorship model. In partnership with community-based agencies, we train volunteers to work safely and effectively with refugees, ensuring that our work complements existing services. Moreover, we train our volunteers and monitor our matches in order to create a culture of learning that allows for continual improvement. We make compatible and informed matches using a preference matching system that takes into account variables like geographic proximity, volunteer capacity, and the newcomers’ needs. Each Welcome Group is also assigned a Cultural Ambassador who not only serves as interpreter but also facilitates broader cultural understanding.

Why is the Together Project’s work important now?
With the current political and social climate south of the border and in Europe, it is important for Canadians to have an opportunity to support refugee newcomer integration. People need avenues to create diverse, welcoming communities. The Welcome Group model represents an opportunity to scale volunteer engagement with GAR newcomers across the province and beyond.

Refugee Newcomers Learn to Curl at the Royal Canadian Curling Club / Photo: Anna Hill for Together Project

Refugee Newcomers Learn to Curl at the Royal Canadian Curling Club / Photo: Anna Hill for Together Project

What are some of the challenges for your project?
Many GAR newcomers arrive in Canada with no background in an official language. In Toronto, it is difficult for them to attain enough English language fluency to find work within the first 12 months following arrival. One of our current challenges is how to train volunteers to provide meaningful English language practice opportunities.

How has your experience with Together Project impacted you?
I have learned the importance of cultural humility, the difference between charity and empowerment, and that the key to finding the perseverance to make a difference is to witness the perseverance of others.

Leading Together Project has shaped my belief that every relationship counts, especially in terms of people and partnership management. You just never know who is going to lend a helping hand or point you in the right direction.

What is your proudest accomplishment with Together Project?
As our name implies, Together Project is truly a group effort. I am very proud of our community partnerships that allow us to better serve our refugee newcomer constituents. For example, our program partnership with the YMCA allows refugee newcomer youth to access leadership development training. Our partnership with The Ritz-Carlton, Toronto orients and trains refugee newcomers in the hospitality industry, and our partnership with Kids Up Front provides refugee newcomers with free access to events.

Spring Hike with The Bruce Trail Club. Photo: Patrick Marshall for Together Project.

Spring Hike with The Bruce Trail Club. Photo: Patrick Marshall for Together Project.

What do you hope to achieve in your time at Together Project and beyond?
I want GAR newcomers to feel welcome, connected, and empowered in Canada. I want to test and refine the Welcome Group model to ensure that our volunteers are working safely and effectively with refugees, and I want to work with public, private, and nonprofit partners to support newcomer integration.

Can you share a story from the Together Project newcomer community?
Torn from their home amidst difficult, often devastating circumstances, many refugees face emotional challenges in adapting to life in Canada. A number of families have said that they take great comfort in knowing they are not alone in coping with the transition. One family in particular explained that when their son injured his knee and required stitches, they simply called their Welcome Group, and all of the members immediately came to their aid. Some members accompanied the parents and the son to the hospital, while others stayed at their home to watch the remaining children. The mother explained, “I felt like I really had a family in Canada when this happened, people I could ask for help when I needed it.”

Together Project is one of over 40 shared platform projects of Tides Canada. What drew you to work with Tides Canada?
If Together Project had to invent its own finance, HR, accounting, and governance practices, there would be less time to develop the model and programs. Moreover, the shared platform allows credibility with key partners to be established early on, which in turn enables us to better serve our refugee newcomer and volunteer constituents.

Together Project is one of over 40 innovative social change projects on Tides Canada’s shared platform. You can help Together Project connect GAR newcomers and Canadians for friendship and settlement support. If you would like to learn more, volunteer, support, or partner with Together Project, please email anna@togetherproject.ca.