'They have nothing'—Sudbury works to support 'surprise' influx of 500 refugees
200 refugee families qualified for social housing in Sudbury last year, 300 more on wait list
Dozens of African refugees have come through the doors of Better Beginnings Better Futures in Sudbury in the past year, but Genevieve Gibbons remembers one woman in particular.
"I said 'What do you need?' And she said 'I have one cup that I share with my husband. And my husband has his tea first and then I have my tea,'" the organization's community resource manager says.
Gibbons says the woman "bawled" when she handed her a box full of dishes.
"They have nothing, nothing when they come. They have maybe just a bag of clothes that they brought with them," she says.
Fuelled by donations, Better Beginnings has been supplying the refugees with clothing and household goods, with blenders for making soups being a popular item.
"I'm just so really happy to help out and provide for the newcomers," says volunteer Florence Pangowish.
"I am so full of joy."
Other social service agencies have had a harder time handling the influx of some 500 refugees, while providing for their existing clients. Several declined to speak on the record.
Most of the refugees in the past year have been coming up from Toronto because of the shorter wait for social housing in Greater Sudbury.
Manager of housing services Cindi Briscoe says 200 refugee families were given homes last year, about half of the total.
She says another 298 are currently on the waiting list of 1,700 families seeking a subsidized unit.
"This was a surprise. We weren't aware that we had all of a sudden become a focal point for a lot of the shelters across the province," she says.
Briscoe says because the refugee families were staying in a shelter in Toronto, they are classified as being homeless and are added to an urgent list, moving ahead of those who were already waiting to be housed.
"When individuals come through our door, the expectation from their point-of-view is that they're going to be housed relatively quickly. So it creates a lot of disappointment because once they come and see us, they understand better that the wait is a lengthy wait," says Briscoe.
Schools in Sudbury have had no trouble accommodating the newcomers, with most in northern Ontario getting emptier and emptier in recent years.
Michael Bellmore, the chair of the Sudbury Catholic District School Board, says they have 500 more students than expected this year and about 200 of those are from newcomer families.
"Growing up in the valley there might've been one visible minority kid at my school back in those days," he says.
"I think diversity is wonderful and obviously a great benefit for our kids to learn other cultures and customs and to understand and respect those."
Sault Ste. Marie has seen 250 refugees arrive since 2016, but settlement program manager Jane Omollo from the Sault Community Career Centre says almost all have been government-sponsored refugees, allowing the community to better prepare for their arrival.
"You know, so many people think that we have an influx of refugees, but when you think out of about 75,000 residents or so, maybe only a hundred of them are refugees," she says. "That is just like a drop in the ocean. So it's not like we are overwhelmed."
Northern Ontario has been trying to attract more newcomers for years, the latest attempt being the soon-to-be launched Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot, which will match local employers with skilled workers.
Greater Sudbury's acting director of economic development Meredith Armstrong says she feels that new program has helped brand the city as a welcoming place for immigrants and feels a warm welcome for these recent refugees will have the same affect.
"Anecdotally I have heard that word of mouth is a very powerful thing. And even if on paper there are so many reasons that a community is or isn't a good fit, if the word of mouth within a specific community is saying 'Oh you got to go there, there's help there' someone who is in a desperate situation is going to take a path of least resistance," she says.
Sudbury Liberal MP Paul Lefebvre says he's been meeting with community groups and federal immigration officials to streamline the services available for newcomers in the city and to make sure that the people in need already living here aren't left behind.
"We need to make sure that their way of life does not change in a negative way because of the newcomers and that's the last thing the newcomers want as well," says Lefebvre.
"That's what we need to strive for and we're on that path."