'We can be brothers': New program helps build community for migrant workers in rural Ontario

Toronto-based group The Neighbourhood Organization opened an office in Simcoe, Ont., for migrant workers to drop by for information sessions and social events. It has also partnered with a local church to offer two meetups each week to share food and conversation.

Workers receive mental health and other newcomer supports at an office and local church in Simcoe, Ont.

A gif of four stills shows a migrant farmer waiting for a bus outside a mall; a migrant worker perusing boxes of donated supplies at a church; an open palm holding a U.S. dollar that's been folded into a heart shape; and two men embracing one another inside a church.
In December, The Neighbourhood Organization opened an office in Simcoe, Ont., to provide migrant farm workers of the area access to information on topics like mental health, taxes and more. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

On a sunny Thursday evening, Pedro Mondragón Rodríguez walks into a Simcoe, Ont., church with a couple other men and a smile on his face.

At 58 years old, Mondragón Rodríguez has been travelling to Canada as a migrant worker for 22 years — nearly half of his life. 

Since March, he has been coming to the Trinity Anglican Church twice a week for a quick meal hosted by The Neighbourhood Organization (TNO) and to catch up with others in the community. He often brings other workers with him to visit the church or do their weekly shopping.

Two men walking across a parking lot at a shopping plaza.
Migrant farmer workers shop at the Simcoe Town Centre mall, in Simcoe, Ont., on May 26. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

TNO, a Toronto-based group which provides services to newcomers across Ontario, opened an office at the Simcoe Town Centre in December and has been bringing workers like Mondragón Rodríguez together ever since, at the office or in community spaces like the local church. 

"Since they opened here they have also helped me. They have helped us with clothes... because I came here with only three pants and three shirts," Mondragón Rodríguez says, in an interview translated from Spanish. 

Creating connections

Jennifer Rajasekar works as the project manager of worker support services with TNO and is one of the people in charge of the Simcoe office, a block away from the church.

She and her team there — most of whom drive in from the Greater Toronto Area — provide support with navigating the healthcare system, knowing workers' rights and accessing mental health resources. The office also offers welcome bags, information sessions, social gatherings and sports competitions.

A woman stands outside an Anglican church during the golden hour on a sunny May evening.
Jennifer Rajasekar, project manager of worker support services with TNO, said over time, the workers seeking TNO's services have gotten to know the staff at the office and will often visit just to say hello or bring flowers. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

TNO opened the Simcoe office in Norfolk County, not far from the Lake Erie shoreline, to help serve the many migrant workers in the area closer to where they live and work.

TNO also works with employers to help support the wellbeing of workers, Rajasekar said. 

As workers walk in and out of the office, many of them greet the staff there warmly, a sign of familiarity.

Some workers walk in with a big group of their friends to show them where they can come in times of need, or just drop by to say "hello," said Rajasekar.

Three people stand near a counter with another person behind it, with a banner above the entrance that says: The Neighbourhood Organization; Migrant Workers Support Services.
A migrant farm worker speaks with staff members at a resource centre at the Simcoe Town Centre mall. The office opened in December and operates six days a week. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

"We wanted to give them a space [where] you're sharing information," she said. "At the same time, give them the social space for them to hang around and talk to each other."

That social space is the church, where TNO partners with a local priest, Father Enrique Martinez, and the The Huron Farmworkers Ministry to welcome migrant workers on Thursdays and Fridays to socialize, share some food and collect donations.

Paying it forward

On this May evening, volunteer Sidique Ali-Hosein is also at the church to greet workers.

Ali-Hosein used to be a migrant farm worker, so when he found out about the program, he was happy to deliver to others what he wish he had when he had first arrived.

Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, he said when he first came to Canada, he didn't know much about the country or what to expect.

"We had to learn a lot coming over here … for them having these [resources] here. It saves them so much money and time," he said.

Ali-Hosein helps workers, many also from the Caribbean, by creating bonds and helping to explain the services available.

"Seeing how happy and appreciative they are, we can go out there and make them feel a part of the community, feel appreciated, that's the most rewarding," he said.

A priest stands outside of a church looking to the side.
Deacon Enrique Martinez stands outside the Trinity Anglican Church, where twice a week he welcomes migrant workers for a social gathering. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Cakes and other snacks sit on a table near the front, as workers make their way through filling up cardboard plates with food.

Before they can start eating, Martinez leads a short prayer where he asks, among other things, for the health and safety of the workers' families back home and for a prosperous work environment.

The prayer is followed by a rendition in both Spanish and English of Happy Birthday for two workers whose birthdays just passed.

"The biggest problem these workers have … and especially in the Latin American community, is mental health," said Martinez in an interview with CBC Hamilton, translated from Spanish.

"[Coming to Canada means] packing up a wrinkled heart and leave with just your clothes and your faith." 

Taking care of mental health through faith

Martinez says, as a Christian, he tries to help build a family away from home for the workers. 

Many of those workers are from Mexico, a country where around 78 per cent of the population is Catholic, according to Mexico's national statistics and geography institute. That's why, Martinez said, it's important for the workers to be able to connect through religion.

But time is limited on these evening outings.

With workers wanting to make the most of the trip, they'll use the three to five hours they have to do their shopping, send money back home and grab a meal.

As a result, Martinez will often get WhatsApp messages from workers just wanting to chat during the week.

Martinez has been working with migrant workers since before TNO arrived in town, but he said thanks to the organization, the feeling of community has grown exponentially.

"They created an umbrella where we all organized and gave what we had to offer [to the community]," he said.

He said some of workers, most of them men, even see him as a father figure, and call him "the father of the Fathers."

"My favourite thing is arriving here and seeing happy faces, arriving here and seeing that we can be brothers despite the distance and inequalities," he said.


Aura Carreño Rosas

Freelance reporter, CBC Hamilton

Aura Carreño Rosas is a Hamilton-based freelance journalist from Venezuela, with a passion for pop culture and unique people with diverse journeys.