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Mercy Traveller: Refugees in Canada — who are the real heroes?

April is national volunteer month, so it seems appropriate to remember the dedication of those who reach beyond their front door
Hope staff mtg (6 of 15)
Jamey McDonald, Executive Director, New Hope Community Services plans the day with volunteers and staff. Photo by Philip Maher for GuelphToday.

There is a lot of discussion about refugees across this great land. Who could have predicted that refugees would become an almost daily news story in Canada and around the world?

I’ve figured out who the real Canadian heroes are in this refugee process. First, a little background.

This past week I was in Vancouver—Surrey for you B.C. initiated, but for the rest of us, greater Vancouver.

I spoke at a dinner held for volunteers and supporters of New Hope Community Services, ( an organization that provides reasonably priced short-term housing for refugees. To provide the inexpensive apartments, the charity needs to raise about half of its budget from local businesses, individuals, churches, etc. It is a fine, well-run charity. More than 50 people, including children, currently benefit from the service.

While there are some Syrians, there is also a young Afghani family and some Africans. However, it’s always changing. Although this was Vancouver, it could have been Guelph, Sault Ste. Marie, St. Stephen, NB, or anywhere. There are hundreds of refugee organizations across the country helping to integrate refugees into Canadian life.

This past week has been a real learning experience for me. I sat in the main lobby of the apartments having some meetings and observing the comings and goings of the building. I’ve figured out who the real heroes are in this refugee process. It is everyday Canadians.

Canada has a great system, which takes advantage of the public’s desire to help. In the U.S.A. they might call it free enterprise or democratization of the process. I know they would never call it hands on socialism. But in Canada it’s just local folks helping people who are down on their geographical luck. Every day I saw volunteers picking up refugees for doctor appointments, school enrolment or job interviews. Some volunteers simply drop by to visit families or play with kids while parents head out on their administrative safaris. Some people dropped off high-quality furniture or kitchen essentials. When the family leaves the short-term housing, they are allowed to take literally everything except the kitchen sink. Beds, pots, dishes, furniture—it all goes. It’s a kind of nest egg to help the arrivals get on their feet.

New Hope is a church-based organization. Each family has a support group from a local faith group. Every two weeks random churches feed the entire building at a community meal. It’s a fun time of getting to know fellow clients and meeting the team that brings the food. Kids run around freely. It’s like Thanksgiving dinner when kids go a bit crazy. It’s a pile of fun.

It is something of a paradox that church people are credited with helping to place in power a U.S. president who shuns refugees. In Canada, hundreds of churches and more than 50 church organizations continue to welcome thousands of those same refugees. Folks from Anglicans to evangelicals, all are reaching out. Of course you don’t have to be religious to care. Many great organizations are purely secular. The common denominator is simply that these people want to help.

April is national volunteer month, so it seems appropriate to remember the dedication of those who reach beyond their front door. Who are the real heroes of the refugee system—it’s the volunteers and we owe them our thanks.


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About the Author: Philip Maher

Philip Maher is a consultant and photojournalist. He has managed international communication projects for more than 20 years, taking him to more than 80 countries. His twitter is @mercytraveller.
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