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Community Update: Getting newcomers and refugees the help they need


According to the Labor Market Ottawa Survey, immigrants and children of immigrants make up 44 per cent of Ottawa’s current population.

In the best of times, newcomers experience many changes upon arrival in a new country, and have to adapt to many new challenges. 

With COVID-19 now sweeping through our communities, we know that for newcomers to Canada, the social barriers that already existed for them have been exacerbated due to the effects of the pandemic. 

For many weeks now, United Way East Ontario has been bringing together a table of public health authorities, municipalities, frontline social service agencies, corporate partners, and many others. In the same way we worked together with our communities to support Syrian refugees, to recover after the 2018 tornadoes, and to rebuild after the 2019 floods, we are again working diligently to support the most vulnerable through this unparalleled event.

While it is one of the most effective tools we have to flatten the curve of COVID-19 in our communities, physical distancing is difficult, and there are many aspects that make it debilitating for newcomers in our communities.

By Michael Allen
President and CEO,
United Way East Ontario

Without an established support network to draw on when they need help, many newcomers are even more susceptible to social isolation, food insecurity, and financial hardship.

Additionally, language barriers and past trauma make it harder for newcomers to seek help when they need it, which may result in poor health and mental health outcomes. 

This week, our table met again to hear from representatives from the coalition of Local Agencies Serving Immigrants (LASI) and the Ottawa Local Immigration Partnership (OLIP), including Andrea Gardner of Jewish Family Services of Ottawa and Carl Nicholson of Catholic Centre for Immigrants, as well as Jalil Marhnouj of the Assunnah Muslims Association, Naini Cloutier of Somerset West Community Health Centre (SWCHC), and Louisa Taylor of Refugee 613

These leaders shared the challenges newcomers—refugees in particular—are facing, and how we can work together to find creative solutions to those problems. 

This week’s meeting had the added support from municipal, provincial and federal elected officials, including Marie France Lalonde, Member of Parliament for Orléans; Jeremy Roberts, Member of Provincial Parliament for Ottawa West—Nepean and Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister of Children, Community and Social Services; Laura Dudas, Ottawa City Councillor for Innes Ward and Deputy Mayor; and Christa Lowry, Mayor of Mississippi Mills. These officials have pledged to support the table’s work, provide resources where appropriate, and elevate issues to the proper government channels to better address them. 

Unsure of where to turn for help

Lack of access to food is the single biggest issue facing newcomers in our region.

As many culturally-sensitive food providers—like kosher or halal markets—have had to close their doors due to COVID-19, families and individuals who depend on them for sustenance are at a high risk of running out of food that meet their cultural or religious food requirements. 

Additionally, many newcomers, particularly seniors, may not possess credit or debit cards. This, compounded with the complexities of not having access to internet services or cell phones, makes it nearly impossible for many families to order groceries online. 

What we need now, more than ever, is to find better ways of communicating

Many social programs that promote connectedness and socialization among already vulnerable groups—like seniors—have pivoted to virtual models. However, newcomers without access to reliable internet connection, electronic devices, or computer literacy find themselves more socially isolated than ever before.

Similarly, while school boards have swiftly moved learning online and are getting devices like Google Chromebooks into the hands of students, many newcomer families are large, and share small living quarters. Sharing one device among many users does not support productive learning, and limits how connected each member of the family can be.

We are also particularly attuned to other challenges newcomers may be facing:
  • A large number of newcomers and people of colour are essential workers. From personal support workers at long-term care homes protecting the elederly, to grocery store employees ensuring our communities are fed, newcomers who are on the frontlines are fearful of getting sick, and not being able to support their families financially.
  • While a great deal of support programs already exist, language barriers prove to be an immense obstacle. Newcomers who do not speak one of Canada’s two official languages, struggle with understanding constantly-changing guidelines released by government and health officials, leading them to miss out on crucial support services and potentially put themselves at risk.
  • In addition to the pressures of COVID-19, refugees also have to cope with past trauma, and an unsettled life in a new country.
  • Public health organizations are not, at this point, collecting race-based data which makes it harder to pinpoint the particular impacts of the virus on diverse communities. Organizations are also sensitive to the fact that race-based data can also cause further harm to the people in question.

Rallying together

We’ve seen our communities come together in times of community crisis. This time, it’s no different. 

Our partner agencies continue to find creative solutions to these local problems. By forming partnerships with pop-ups like Operation Ramzieh, local services like food banks and faith-based groups like churches, synagogues and mosques, organizations like the Jewish Family Services of Ottawa are able to support more than 500 people twice a month with food boxes that respect cultural food requirements, and attend to specific needs such as diapers, formula, and other household needs. 

Similarly, the Assunnah Muslims Association, with support from the United Muslim Organizations of Ottawa Gatineau (UMO-OG), initiated a Volunteer Task Force, which rallied close to 350 new volunteers who were quickly trained by health care professionals. They also secured more than 1,500 food kits—providing about 80,000 meals for individuals and families. The UMO-OG also understands the cultural and linguistic barriers that are inevitable when working with newcomers, and organized a hotline staffed by trained counsellors who offer one-on-one sessions with those who need support or are dealing with residual trauma—offered in English, French, Arabic, and Somali. 

Refugee 613 took the leadership of creating an information hub for immigrant- and refugee-serving organizations. The goal of this hub is to share resources, and help organizations reach newcomers where they are, on the communication platforms they use most. 

"We're stronger in our united response because of what we've all done in the past,”

With so many engaged partners who are laser-focused on a common goal, we are able to respond quickly to the needs as we identify them. Right now, in the thick of this crisis, we need to ensure our communities’ newcomers and refugees have the support they need to get through COVID-19, and come out of this even stronger. 

Things are financially difficult for so many people right now. But, when we work together, we can use our resources creatively and effectively to address the most pressing needs. 

This is our mission.

In early March, in partnership with Ottawa Public Health and dozens of organizations across the community sector, United Way launched an initiative to help support the most vulnerable in response to the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) affecting our region. This collaboration has enabled local problem solving, prioritization of needs, and collaboration. To learn more about supporting the initiative, or if you require community service assistance, please visit




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