As the Impact Manager of the Refugees portfolio, my first investment in my work at the Northpine Foundation was with the The Refugee Centre in Montreal to test the idea of relocating refugees from big cities to small towns, with the assumption that refugees will settle and integrate faster in small towns.
A sense of community
Together with The Refugee Centre, we chose the small town of Moncton, NB, to resettle refugee families as part of our pilot project. Moncton offered affordable housing, easier entry into the job market and better access to services.
But, we knew that others had attempted this relocation initiative before, and failed. Refugees would often find their way back to the big city, where they had friends, a social circle and a greater sense of community. As this project unfolds, the questions that have been on our minds are:
What does it take for refugees to develop a sense of belonging and community?
And will that be the difference between them staying in these smaller towns or leaving for the big city once more?
What will drive that sense of community?
Is it friends in the neighbourhood, access to an ethnic food store, or perhaps an opportunity to become a homeowner?
The workings of a welcoming and inclusive community
During a recent visit to Pictou County NS, I met Rania, a Syrian newcomer, and her family who came to Canada through the private sponsorship program. Rania and her husband opened a restaurant called Maple Cedar Syrian Kitchen. They sell the best and only shawarma in town, and cater many events in the area.
Rania’s son works at Sobey’s, a company that has been exemplary in welcoming, hiring and supporting refugees, particularly in Pictou County where their family business began.
Rania’s landlord offered her family a rent to own deal so they could purchase their home in a way that worked for them. Rania’s kids spend most of their time in the neighbour’s backyard playing with their kids.
As I sat in Rania’s backyard sipping tea, an elderly lady from the senior home across the street stopped by.
“She pops in every day just to say hi,” Rania said. I knew that that’s the sort of thing that happens in Syria, and in many of the countries refugees come from. Something like this is a highly unlikely occurrence in Toronto or Montreal but it’s one of those things that create a deep sense of community for newcomers.
At a local elementary school by Rania’s house, a Syrian newcomer who was teaching there told me she received a temporary license that allowed her to work at the school while she worked towards getting the required accreditations. Coming from Ontario, I found this to be incredible and deeply sensical.
Later that evening, I was invited to attend the monthly Pictou County potluck at the community centre. The room was filled with an array of people from different backgrounds. As they shared food, and the kids all ran up and down the hallways together, it became clear to me that lifelong friendships were formed here.
I was moved to hear from locals about how thankful they were to have newcomers join their communities, and to hear from newcomers about the welcoming “Pictou County community hug”.
As we continue rolling out our pilot for the relocation of refugees from big cities to smaller towns, we take inspiration from places like Pictou County, and we continue to take apart and put back together this concept of a community hug.
What do you think makes for a welcoming community and how do we help newcomers build sense of belonging in their new homes? We’d love to hear from you.