Asylum seekers in Montreal build community by helping each other

When Duha Elmardi first moved into her Montreal home, she and her husband slept on the floor of their apartment for a month.

The couple, both Sudanese asylum seekers, had crossed into Canada from the U.S. via Roxham Road in 2018 for a shot at a safe life. They are still waiting for their asylum claims to be processed. 

Their story is no exception. Last year, 27,910 people applied for asylum in Quebec, according to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. Many of those people have to start from scratch once they arrive. 

Elmardi says she and her husband were luckier than others. 

"We managed," she said. "But there are people with children. That's really difficult."

Refugee claimants are eligible for some services, like temporary housing or French-language courses, but many of them escaped traumatic situations, making it difficult to navigate the health-care system, language barriers, and feelings of isolation.

Elmardi is now helping other refugee claimants in Montreal overcome those challenges as the volunteer coordinator at the Welcome Collective.

The community organization provides support — a friendly face and help with basic needs such as furniture, for example — to asylum claimants.

The organization also offers guidance through creating "welcome groups," made up of Montrealers who offer advice to newcomers about health care, transportation, language and more.

Creating community

As a part of her work at the Welcome Collective, Elmardi organized a recent picnic in honour of World Refugee Day, celebrated every year on June 20.

Dozens of asylum claimants and volunteers who are connected to the Welcome Collective gathered to swap snacks and stories.

"The idea is basically to group as a community," Elmardi said.

"Meeting with each other, speaking to each other, and see how each other is doing." 

Jennifer Yoon/CBC

For Yafa Goawily, an asylum claimant from Egypt, that community is invaluable. She volunteers at Welcome Collective events, organizing games and face painting for children.

She says she hopes to make a career out of this work in Montreal. 

Goawily, who came to Canada six months ago with her husband and two sons, has been working hard to normalize life for her two boys, aged 5 and 11.

"With kids, it's hard to explain to them why we're leaving, why we can't go back, and why they have to really try to make it here," she said. 

Her boys miss their friends back home, and are constantly chatting with them online, she said.

She hopes introducing her sons to other young people who have had similar experiences will be helpful.

"We're all in the situation that we need to be together and we need to help each other." 

Volunteering as empowerment

Elmardi is overseeing the co-ordination of the refugee claimant volunteer program, which gives asylum claimants a chance to volunteer with the Welcome Collective and help others in need.

"It feels very empowering," Elmardi said. 

She said the program allows refugee claimants to share the skills they brought over from their home countries and give back to the community, while also gaining work experience.

Jennifer Yoon/CBC

There are more plans in the works at the Welcome Collective to help out refugee claimants, such as creating a computer lab to help teach basic computer skills. 

In the meantime, Elmardi encourages others to get involved and help out if they can.

"If anyone has any extra furniture in the house, there's always someone who needs it."