A chance meeting with a refugee boy changed the course of Anne Woolger's career in 1987. 

The nine-year-old boy had travelled to Canada from war-torn Vietnam. He had escaped major physical injury, but his brother had been shot in the head and was blinded. Two siblings died of starvation on their journey.

But what shocked Woolger most was the boy's admission that the most difficult part of his journey was his first few days and months in Canada. 

The boy described arriving in Canada and "feeling so unwelcome and ostracized by his peers when he first began attending school," says Woolger.

"He used to cry himself to sleep at night wishing he was back home in the 'killing fields.' "

His story inspired the theology graduate student at Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto to find a place to volunteer to "help make refugees feel more welcome."

The day after she met him, Woolger looked up the word "refugee" in the phone book. One thing led to another and instead of working abroad in missions, as she had planned, she stayed in Canada to help make a global impact working with refugees.

Now, 28 years later, she is the director of Matthew House Refugee Reception Services in Toronto and has helped settle 4,000 refugees from 93 countries.

Anne Woolger

Anne Woolger, director of Matthew House Refugee Reception Services in Toronto, helped settle 4,000 refugees from 93 countries. (Matthew House Refugee Reception Services)

Her centre has been instrumental in the opening of six other refugee shelters across Canada. 

These shelters for unsponsored refugee claimants have been the welcoming place and unofficial sponsors for refugees — including unaccompanied minors — for years as they arrive homeless, alone and afraid in Canada with no one to help them. 

They help refugees with all their settlement needs: food, shelter and orientation to life in Canada and help them find housing and furnishings when they are ready to leave the shelter.

'Welcomed, not feared'

In a recent interview with CBC's Matt Galloway, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that as Syrian refugees come to Canada, children, women and their families will be given priority because they are considered to be the most vulnerable.

He said the goal is to ensure that 25,000 refugees have as successful a path as possible to integrating into communities in Canada. "We want these families arriving to be welcomed, not feared, because that's the way to get the right start in terms of having them become valuable parts of our community and create success."

Woolger shares that view.

Helping a refugee child adapt to Canada "all depends on their reception," she says.

A study published in the Journal of Intercultural Communication in 2006 showed that having at least one safe, strong attachment, along with supportive friends and teachers, can help to promote integration and ultimately resilience for child newcomers to Canada. 

School should be a priority

Children generally adapt to a new country as immigrants more easily than their parents. They tend to learn the language more quickly and schools play a big role in helping them integrate. Enrolling is a vital first step, says Woolger. 

"The way that they're received by volunteers, by schoolmates, by teachers … will really make an impact on them."


A young Syrian refugee clutches his treasure — an orange — as his mother begs on the streets of Beirut. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

Woolger has also noticed that adjusting to Canadian food is one of the greatest culture shocks for refugee children, something that may contribute to poor nutrition for those who are often already malnourished.

According to a recent joint assessment on Syrian refugees in Lebanon by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the United Nations Children's Fund and the World Food Programme, one in three households had one or no cooked meals the previous day.

The report also showed that many refugees had limited access to nutritious foods, including fruits and vegetables, with more than half not consuming iron-rich foods — meat and fish — in the previous week.

Poor access to good nutrition can continue to be a problem because refugee families often cannot afford more expensive, healthier options and may resort to less expensive fast-food alternatives as part of their new Canadian diet.

Woolger has also found that children, especially those who have been in war zones, can have nightmares. Post-traumatic stress can also arise, perhaps months or years later.

"At the beginning, they're just so focused on just getting a roof over their head, getting a square meal. Their adrenaline is still running," she says.

Reminders of war

Experiencing new cultural festivities with fireworks, such as Canada Day and Victoria Day, can be reminiscent of the sounds of violence and can be stressful and stir up negative memories, says Woolger.

When jets fly over the city during air shows, it can be distressing and reminiscent of the war they fled. Woolger is careful to help children, and even adults, understand these celebrations and shows.

While much current attention is focusing on helping Syrian refugees, Woolger notes that there are also 15,000 to 20,000 refugee claimants from other countries who come to Canada seeking asylum each year, with no sponsors. They also need assistance.

She says approximately 20 per cent of those refugee claimants have no one helping them and are in the homeless shelter system.

"I kind of feel that the refugee claimants we help are in some ways the forgotten refugees of Canada.  They are quietly coming but few people know about them and few reach out to help them." 


Syrian refugee children, mostly from Idlib province in Syria, have been living in Jordan for more than two years since fleeing the violence in Syria. (Omar Ibrahim/Reuters)

For child refugees, Woolger says there are several things beyond food, shelter and safety that are needed. They include:

  • Toys and clothing, particularly winter clothing at this time of year;
  • Crafts and activities that allow older children to be creative and keep active;
  • Laptops for school and homework and cellphones to help teenagers integrate with new peers.

For refugees in general, one of the most important things Canadians can do, says Woolger, is be welcoming.

Ways to do that include:

  • Calling a refugee shelter or organization and ask how to volunteer.
  • Befriending and "semi-adopting" a refugee or refugee family by helping them find housing, helping them furnish it or helping them integrate into their community.

Woolger never again saw the Vietnamese refugee boy who had such an impact on her life.

But over the years, she has learned why his painful memory of being unwelcome was so poignant. But refugees have told her time and time again that "they remember the first person they met. They remember what happened in those first two or three minutes. They never forget," she says.

"It's fascinating how those first few minutes are so impactful."

Dr. Joelene Huber is a pediatrician at St. Michael's Hospital and a Fellow in Journalism at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto.