The LGIU’s Ingrid Koehler recently spoke with Vera Dodic who managers the City of Toronto’s Newcomer Office. They have responsibility for coordinating services and supporting refugees and other newcomers into Toronto, Canada. You can hear this interview in a forthcoming episode of our Global Local podcast and you can find more information, innovation and inspiration in our latest Global Local Recap focusing on refugee resettlement and local government.
Vera Dodic: The newcomer office was established in 2013, it’s a relatively small team of people, it’s me and four other team members. Our primary role is to facilitate the implementation of the city of Toronto’s newcomer strategy and to facilitate the implementation of a couple of other policies or documents and they include access to City services for undocumented Torontonians, the refugee resettlement program and also the City of Toronto’s refugee capacity plan.
We do not provide direct services so we don’t see newcomers on a regular basis – we do occasionally, but we focus on working with others on a strategic level and there is a whole spectrum of partners and stakeholders that we interact with on a daily level. That includes city councillors, that includes politicians, but also other public servants working, whether at the city in other municipalities at the provincial level or the federal level so there is a lot of intergovernmental engagement.
We also work with community agencies in Toronto and outside of Toronto there are some 250 agencies in Toronto that specifically work with newcomers on settlement issues, there are many more that are providing other services and supports, not only to newcomers.
We also connect with agencies and local governments outside of Canada, primarily the United States but we are also a member of the Integrated Cities Charter and quite a few cities from the UK are members as well so we try to contribute whenever we can.
Ingrid Koehler: That’s fantastic. I’m speaking to you now as a result of the latest refugee crisis, and oftentimes many of us only think about resettlement services during a big crisis and in a big resettlement push; I admit I’m probably one of those people who doesn’t think about that but I’m sure you think about that all the time. There are always people and I’m sure there are always people coming to Toronto, but what’s the draw to Toronto -why are they coming?
VD: That’s an interesting question and and a very good question every year 80,000 or so new permanent resident come to Toronto, on top of that there’s temporary residents such as international students, refugee claimants – people that have not established their refugee claim yet etc – so probably upward to 150000 people come to Toronto to settle here on an annual basis. It is a significant number of people and you know from what I’m hearing from them and from my personal experience and from what we are hearing from our partners there are several reasons for that.
So there is of course the economic draw, then also the personal connections, Toronto is an extremely diverse city – more than 50% of our residents were born outside of Canada. In addition to that there are 27% who have at least one parent that is an immigrant. So that is 80% of our population that has a direct connection to immigration. More than 140 languages are spoken in Toronto and the diversity is significant and everyone feels at home and can find home here and that’s what’s important.
I mentioned the very developed community sector in Toronto; I think that’s another piece that people consider when they’re moving to Toronto because they get support from when they arrive and they feel comfortable here. The community sector is very developed and should I say very vocal – the public service hears from them if things are not right and that is important for everyone.
IK: Yeah, that kind of interplay between different different bodies within a city is so important for keeping things vibrant and performing well, even though as a local government officer in my past – and I’m sure you experience this now – sometimes we wish maybe they would approach in a softer voice but yes it’s still like super important. In terms of Toronto, and I haven’t been to Toronto other than seeing it from the air and changing planes and I don’t think that really counts, what’s Toronto like as a city to live in? And if I can say so, if I detect from your accent you’re not originally from Toronto yourself – you have been a newcomer to Toronto?
VD: That’s correct, I have been a newcomer to Toronto two times, I’m originally from Belgrade former Yugoslavia now Serbia and Toronto has been my home and my family’s home for 25 years or so. Being a newcomer in Toronto can be somewhat intimidating because it’s a big city, there’s close to 3 million people who call Toronto home. The diversity I mentioned is significant and if you’re coming from a place where you’re not used to seeing that it takes some getting used to. But Toronto is a city of neighbourhoods and everyone can find their own neighbourhood here, there’s a Greek neighbourhood, Italian neighbourhood, Little Jamaica, Little India, Chinese area, there are many many different neighbourhoods. Everyone can find a home here and it is easy to adjust – it just requires a bit of time.
There are also many opportunities here as far as cultural events, sporting events and the schools are great. When we moved to Toronto I was very impressed with how welcome my children were; they each were assigned an ambassador, a peer, to follow them around and talk to them about important things to know about the school, the neighbourhood. Toronto libraries are phenomenal, they provide not only books but there is programming, programming specific to newcomers so you can borrow books in a number of languages, DVDs, using the computer, job searching, connecting with families on the computers etc. When we arrived, personally, libraries were my favourite place and I would go there and borrow books written by Canadian authors because I felt that was how I could learn the most about my new home.
IK: That’s wonderful and what was the favourite book that you had at that time?
VD: Well, there were quite a few but I would mention was by Carol Shields as one of my favourite authors and also Margaret Attwood.
IK: That’s really wonderful, and if you’re coming in now or thinking about this current crisis, what’s the impact – what happens with a refugee family coming in from Afghanistan probably fairly traumatised, varying degrees of trauma but just leaving your home country for whatever reason can be a wrench, so how are they going to settle into Toronto, where do they live? And how does the city or local government work with partners to help people in those early first steps?
VD: I think the municipal government, at least in Canada, although we do not have a direct role in setting the immigration policy, we have a huge role in welcoming people to the city. For persons such as refugees, that’s extremely important, to feel welcome and at ease and feel that they belong.
We have quite a bit of experience in welcoming refugees and whether its a smaller number or a large number such as 2016/17 where we welcomed 9000 refugees from Syria, the city council and the time and small amount of funds dedicated to the newcomer office to establish and we were able to utilise the funds very efficiently. We established two different tables, one was externally focused and one internally focused. It was a way for us to mobilise support and bring the most important players together so that we could talk and exchange information on what each of us is doing and what each of us can contribute and help the national effort to integrate and settle refugees.
In addition to that, we established a few more programmes, including what we called newcomer kiosks in city facilities across the city and that programme continued post-syrian refugees so newcomers could continue to access the programme. We also, prior to the Syrian resettlement, established Toronto Newcomer Day. It’s an annual event and now every year we see more than 10,000 people attend the event. There are many more pieces but the investment from the side of the city is not significant at all but we look for efficiencies and ways to use what is already in place and utilise the programming so that they are extended to refugees.
IK: So in terms of housing in particular, is that handled by the state or federal government and how does it fit in with an overall housing strategy that you might have in the city? I know many places here in London, and I’m sure in Toronto, housing markets are already stretched.
VD: It is stretched and even for more established newcomers or residents of Toronto it is not easy to find affordable housing so it is an issue. What we have done during Syrian resettlement and what we will be doing throughout the Afghan resettlement is establish a special working group who will be working on these issues and mobilising both the general public and large corporations, landlords – everyone that is in a position to provide support.
During the Syrian resettlement we had a table where large landlords and large builders were represented and many of them offered either special funding or special accommodations – rent reductions or first two months free etc. There were many Torontonians as well that had a basement apartment or something and offered to rent it for a lower amount to refugees. These things are happening again this time around and there’s something special about welcoming a large number of refugees coming from such a devastating situation and literally in many case on a moments notice many of the people that are arriving are just arriving with the clothes on their back and nothing else and Torontonians are eager to help.
We recently established a special fund in partnership with United Way and a newly formed agency called Lifeline Afghanistan. It’s a fundraising effort and the funds collected will go to other things, towards housing and we will likely use it for a rent subsidy programme or something similar.
IK: And again you’re working with a range of groups to help them find suitable housing and then working on affordability as well. So you’ve mentioned – and this is the perennial experience of people working in local government – you’re working on a shoestring and making the most of the funds that you have. What kind of resources do you wish that you could have and what would you do with it and what’s some of the most cost-effective programmes you’d run?
VD: I’ll start with the last part of the question, I think the most effective has been bringing everyone to the table, because i’m already there and already employed by the city and there’s no additional investment there but by bringing the right people to the table and having a conversation about what we can each do, it mobilises support and allows for people to understand what others are doing, minimising duplication. Everyone that’s working in the refugee serving sector is eager to step up and get engaged and help. By bringing them all together we facilitate efficiencies, and then there is a system then in place, established.
In terms of what I would like to have, I would love to have two or three more staff because of the pressures dealing with the numbers of emails we are getting. I’m sure that by the time we’ve finished this conversation I will have at least 50 more. We are getting emails from Torontonians that want to be engaged, want to help, want to donate or volunteer. We are getting emails from Torontonians who are Afghans and have family back home who they want to bring over. We are hearing from Afghans still in Afghanistan who would like to come over. We also hear from community partners in Toronto and across Canada who want to be engaged in what we’re doing, people are inspired and so are we. So we are able to continue doing what we are doing because we are passionate about the issues.
IK: So you know, getting those emails from people who are trying to get out or trying to get their family out or reunite either immediate or extended family must be absolutely heart wrenching, how do you refill your cup while you’re trying to be so busy answering those emails and getting those meetings together?
I have a great team of staff, and they are not only my support, they’re my team and we really work well together. We are a very dedicated team of hard-working people. Each of my team members has a personal connection to what’s happening. Right now, we are all immigrants or children of immigrants, and we understand the issues. Some of us have gone through similar things and we know how these people feel; we know that dread of an immediate danger to your family and children, how that feels and this is more than a job to us.
IK: Right. I think that connection and that empathy is really important. If you were to give advice to someone who is working on a resettlement programme elsewhere in Canada or anywhere else in the world and they maybe haven’t experienced that; they’re not an immigrant themselves or they haven’t gone through anything similar, what are the tools of empathy that you’d ask them to consider? What are the things that really make a difference?
VD: I think keeping an open mind and listening are really important. Through my work I come across on a daily basis people who – at least it feels to me – are equally passionate about these issues as I am, and they haven’t had that personal experience. They were born here and have – you know – very English names, and I know that they don’t have the experience – but they’re working in the sector and they see on a daily basis what refugees and migrants have gone through in order to come here. That empathy is there. It is important to remember that on a personal level, regardless of any politics that’s happening, to each and everyone of us are families are the most important and we want to protect them so all the politics any politics should not be part of this and should not be even considered in this so that’s that’s another thing that i’d want to mention – but we should be aware that it exists.
One of the things we’ve been advocating for here is to have a formal intergovernmental strategy in place for dealing with large-scale refugee resettlement. Although we currently don’t have it yet, we were able to establish some informal processes and approaches so we are implementing them but a formal strategy with established roles and responsibilities would be extremely helpful. Local governments I believe around the globe to not have much influence over immigration policies, yet we are the ones that are welcoming newcomers and we are the ones helping them integrate, so we have to be at the table. One such strategy that would be hugely helpful in formalising that.
I would also encourage all local governments around the world to have a newcomer office. It’s a small investment compared to the benefits that that investment produces. All our partners within Toronto now have a place to go to and we are able to cut a lot of the red tape. At the same time, the other levels of government we are able to influence their decisions, we provide a lot of expert advice to the City of Toronto and are also able to advocate with other orders of government for issues newcomers are facing. So with a small investment, a lot to gain.
IK: Yeah, I imagine you could almost cost that out as well, I know there has been some research around different immigrant groups who had come to the UK where people who had been through a lot and leaving their country under more distressing circumstances took a lot longer to – on a bottom line – make enough money to kind of pay back through their taxes and generally contribute economically the kind of money that was spent on their resettlement. It seems to me that the quicker you can help people get over that initial trauma, the faster they can use their skills and be part of the growth of an area so I suppose there’s an argument for having newcomer offices to help people become their best selves and someone who is a part of the economic community.
VD: Agreed, and also because of where we are located, because we are in local government, we are able to see where things can improve so that they can become more efficient. That’s not something that you are going to be able to as easily see if you were working at a local agency, or at the provincial or federal level who are further detached. At the newcomer office we see where the city can improve, where the other orders of government can improve, where the gaps are at the very local level, and then can advocate and influence things to close those gaps.
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