By Brian Buckley
The Circle of Friends was formed in the autumn of 2015 as the Syrian tragedy drew international attention to the plight of refugees in the Middle East and across the globe. A number of people in Holy Rosary Parish and beyond wanted to do something practical to alleviate the suffering. Several possibilities were discussed, including sponsoring one or more refugees, and making a financial contribution to an international charity.
In the course of this discussion we discovered that there were already in Ottawa a number of refugee claimants without any means of support, whose situation was becoming increasingly desperate. In the end we decided to establish a Circle of Friends to assist those most at risk of ‘falling through the cracks’.
The idea was not new. In the late 1970s then Mayor Marion Dewar established Project 4000 to facilitate the resettlement in Ottawa of up to 4,000 Southeast Asian refugees (“the Boat People”). One major lesson learned was that newcomers who acquired a network of Canadian friends generally were able to rebuild their lives here more quickly and more easily than those who did not. With this notion as our touchstone we set out to become trustworthy friends and good neighbours to newcomers – regardless of their status, origins, or creed – who needed a helping hand to resettle successfully in a new country.
The Circle has never operated as a formal sponsorship group. Our mission is to provide material, social, and psychological support to newcomers as they build new lives for themselves in the peace and freedom of our wonderful country. Recognizing that it is a difficult path, we walk with them on their journey -not ahead and not behind- but beside them in friendship.
Over the past several years we have assisted our newcomers tangibly by: helping to find affordable housing and job openings; making career contacts; editing resumes; supplementing food budgets; furnishing used computers and cell phones when needed; providing winter clothing; completing official documentation; organizing social get togethers; advising on obtaining a driver’s licence, and the list goes on. We have also tried to pay particular attention to the needs of the children. Accordingly, we have furnished bicycles; arranged summer camp where possible; helped with educational tutoring and extracurricular activities; all with a view to making the integration of newly arrived children into the Canadian social fabric as painless and efficient as possible.
We do not try to duplicate the professional services offered by such established resettlement agencies as the Catholic Centre for Immigrants (CCI ) or the Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization (OCISO). Indeed we regularly counsel new arrivals to make contact with them and explore the extensive services they offer. We do however stay in touch with these agencies and others, such as Refugee 613 and Matthew House, that are active in the resettlement field. Occasionally the Circle is called upon to assist someone facing a major challenge. For the most part however it is in helping newcomers cope with the normal demands of daily life that the Circle probably makes its greatest contribution.
It is worth stressing that the benefits of Circle membership run in both directions; participation is very much a two-way relationship. The camaraderie of participating in a book club to improve English language skills, sharing the successes and the challenges of our new friends, experiencing new foods and customs, seeing productive new lives take root here, all contribute to a deep and abiding sense of achievement and satisfaction.
During our first few years we focussed chiefly on refugee claimants and refugees as they clearly needed our help. More recently our operations have broadened. We increasingly see people who are permanent residents, landed immigrants, and international students. While their material needs are less acute, the sense of community that we try to extend is as fully appreciated as ever.
The Circle of Friends is centered on Holy Rosary Parish but extends well beyond it. We are a thoroughly ecumenical group counting Christians, Buddhists, and Muslims among our members. Overall direction is provided by a small steering group that meets occasionally to discuss Circle operations. Currently we have approximately 50 people associated with us, with parishioners comprising about half that number. Only a fraction of our total membership is consistently active but the rest remain “on call”, available to us as required. It is deeply gratifying to note that several of our early clients have remained attached to the Circle, becoming among our most active participants.
We are also financially self-sustaining. We are fortunate in having a generous corporate sponsor, Gilas Management, that has not only met most of our financial needs but has also provided affordable housing and job opportunities to several newcomers. In addition, a very large part of the clothing, household goods, and other materials we have supplied has come from outside donors.
The pandemic has greatly affected our social activities by restricting our level of interaction. As our collective situation improves, we intend to ramp up our contacts. In the meantime we continue to help out with specific needs as they come to our attention.
The arrival of significant numbers of Afghan refuges may again require us to re-focus. Whatever the future holds in store, the last six years suggest that we will always need a mechanism to welcome the strangers at our gate and to tell them, in word and in deed, that they can make new lives for themselves among us.