Welcome Collective Montreal refugees

Montreal’s Welcome Collective provides for vulnerable refugees — with the public’s help

The organization has put out a call for financial donations, essentials for parents and kids (especially newborns) and more helping hands.

I can’t imagine what it’s like being displaced from your home, running to escape genocide, violence, natural disasters or war, and navigating a new city, without speaking the language, knowing a single soul, or having a place to live in. Imagine doing all that while pregnant or with a newborn and having access to absolutely no support system to prop you up. 

This is the hard reality thousands of asylum seekers who’ve entered Canada in the past few years often find themselves in. They’re all alone, often speaking neither of the country’s official languages, waiting for a work permit that will allow them to earn a living and put food on the table. The application process can be long and arduous, sometimes taking up to 18 months for refugee claims to be heard. The entire process from start to finish can take years, with refugee claimants experiencing long periods of uncertainty and precariousness.

And the need won’t stop anytime soon. Globally, the number of displaced people around the world is at its highest level in over a decade. Conflicts and violence in Haiti, Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Afghanistan, Syria, Ethiopia, Ukraine and elsewhere are uprooting lives and forcing people into exile.

Providing desperately needed help 

Thankfully, in Montreal many refugees can rely on the generosity of strangers working hard to offer them assistance and a soft place to land. The Welcome Collective (Collectif Bienvenue) is a non-profit organization with the core mission of mobilizing the local community to provide immediate help to the city’s most precarious refugee claimants: single parents, pregnant women, mothers with newborns, large families with young children, people with physical and mental challenges and the elderly. 

Thanks to the generosity of individual donors and foundation support over the past 5 years, they’ve supported close to 9,000 people, including more than 4,500 children and more than 600 pregnant women. This year’s annual campaign is currently underway, and their goal is to raise $100,000 so they can continue to offer essential support to refugee claimant families. 

“Financial contributions are extremely important because it means we can allocate resources to where they’re most needed, in a situation that’s constantly changing,” says Melissa Claisse, communications coordinator for the Welcome Collective. 

The hunt is always on for essential material goods like furniture, winter clothing, kitchen items and items for newborns, like car seats, strollers and baby clothes.

“There are a few items we’re very low on,” says Claisse. “Pots and pans, any type of bedding, sheets, warm blankets, kitchen items, particularly cups and utensils. We’re always in need of newborn items, like clothing, diapers and wipes. We accept packages of diapers that have been opened. Any item that’s useful for them, because we prioritize pregnant women who are very late in their pregnancy or women who’ve just given birth. Newborns make up a big percentage of the people that we’re helping.”

The Welcome Collective has put out a call for donations and volunteers.

Sleeping on the floor 

One of the women helped by the Welcome Collective and featured in this year’s fundraising videos is Aliancia Mercredi. She arrived here from Haiti (by way of Chile) about a year ago — alone, pregnant and accompanied by a young child. 

“I didn’t even know that I was three months pregnant when I arrived,” she tells me. “I was staying at the YMCA shelter and felt unwell. The nurse urged me to take a pregnancy test and that’s when we found out I was expecting.” At the time, Mercredi’s husband was unable to join her in Canada, but they have since been reunited. 

“I remember that time well,” she says. “I was so anxious, so stressed and nauseous all the time. I had no family, no friends in the city. When they finally moved me to an apartment, there was nothing in it. I didn’t even have a bed to sleep on. My three-year-old daughter and I were sleeping on the floor. When I went to the food bank they gave me essentials like milk, but I didn’t have a fridge to store it in. I placed it on the balcony outside to keep it cold. That’s when the Welcome Collective called and asked me what I needed.”

Tangible help like that requires a workforce. The organization is always looking for people willing to volunteer their time. 

“We really appreciate anything people can give,” Claisse says. “Our biggest volunteer need right now are volunteers on our moving truck, delivering furniture to refugee claimants’ homes or picking up donations from donors. We have two full-time truck drivers, and the position requires you to carry furniture, so you must be in good shape for that.” 

Since the position requires someone available Monday through Friday during the day, it can sometimes be a hard volunteer role to fill. “But it’s a position we rely on,” Claisse says. “It’s also a super rewarding role, particularly when you’re delivering to families. You’re on the frontline of seeing the impact of our work, as you enter generally empty apartments, bringing all this furniture into their homes.” 

Navigating a complicated system

Aside from providing material help, a second (equally important) component of the Welcome Collective’s work consists of offering support services to help refugees with often-complicated administrative procedures. With the help of two social workers, the collective intervenes to help people who don’t know the system and how it works, and often don’t speak French. They provide practical information and guidance about social services, how to open a bank account, helping them integrate into their new society and preventing feelings of isolation from seeping in. They also help pregnant women find an obstetrician and prepare for a healthy birth. 

“We see families who’ve gone on long migratory journeys to reach safety,” says Claisse. “The types of families we see depends on the conflicts and upheaval around the world and we receive them often months or years after they’ve been displaced from their homes.” 

While families were mostly arriving from the Middle East and other Arabic-speaking countries a few years ago, Claisse says that in the past year they’ve been witnessing a big increase in families from Latin America, Central and South America. 

“They tend to often be unilingual and Spanish-speaking, which makes access to services incredibly difficult for them,” she says. “They start learning French very quickly, upon arrival, but it’s very difficult, especially for adults who don’t have the capacity to be in school full-time.” 

The psychosocial aspect of the Welcome Collective’s work is a huge part of the support they provide.

“After we help deliver their furniture,” Claisse explains, “we ask them questions like, ‘What are you in need of? How is your immigration application process going? Is there something that you don’t understand? Do you have access to food on a regular basis? If not, let’s help you connect to a food bank. Have you been able to register your kids for school? Have you gotten a work permit yet?’”

A net with giant holes

The government provides some support, and the federal government runs shelters where families can stay for up to a month after they arrive, but Claisse says they are understaffed and unable to adequately respond to current demands. 

“There are way more refugee claimants arriving than shelters can accommodate,” she says. “Many of these families have no access to services or social workers, they’re just housed in federal hotels upon arrival with maybe one representative from a community organization coming every two weeks to give some sort of presentation on services. It’s like a net with giant holes in it. Far too many families fall through the holes.” 

Claisse also worries that many refugee claimants here become the victims of the perpetual tossing-of-the-ball back and forth between the provincial and federal government. 

“So many families are falling through the cracks because officials aren’t taking responsibility,” she says. “It’s important for me to remind people that refugee claimants are requesting refugee status because they’re refugees. They’ve left their homes because they were forced to leave their homes. The choice was to continue to fear for your life, and your children’s lives, or go to a place where you don’t have to have that fear every day.”

In the four years Claisse has been working with the Welcome Collective — first as a volunteer and now as staff — she says she’s met many families displaced for years, who were just looking for a safe, permanent home. 

“Many of them basically walk, take buses, get rides all the way from South America through Central America to the U.S. border, and then many make their way to Canada,” she says. “Many families have been moving around for close to a decade and yet they’re still such positive people, resilient and optimistic. It takes incredible inner strength to maintain that optimism for so many years, and I would say that’s true for a vast majority of these families.”

By foot, by bus, by boat 

Claisse says the first family she ever worked with as a volunteer was a single mother from an African country who made the journey across the Atlantic on a cargo ship. 

“She bought her passage because she was being threatened in her home country and made the journey while pregnant with twins,” she says. “She walked, she took buses, she took a boat from one country to another in South America to cross the border. Smugglers made them travel in small, packed boats along the coast. She saw boats tip over and people died. She walked through the jungle at the Darien Gap, a treacherous route between Colombia and Panama, and she told me there were people who entered the jungle with her who didn’t make it out. Her journey took approximately seven months. By the end of it, she was very pregnant.” 

Claisse says she recently spoke with her and she’s doing well. “Her twins (a boy and a girl) are now almost four,” she says. “She benefited from the Guardian Angels program because she was working as a PAB during the pandemic, so she now has permanent residency. She’s working full-time and her kids are in pre-school. She did, however, leave an older daughter behind in her home country, and she hasn’t been able to reunite with her yet so there’s more to her story that remains unresolved.”

The Welcome Collective helps refugees in Montreal.

Paying it forward 

Mercredi, too, is in a much better place today thanks to the help she received.

“I knew nothing at the time,” she tells me. “I didn’t know the city or how to access any resources. “The collective helped me find a health clinic and a hospital where I could be followed by a doctor and eventually give birth at. Thanks to them, I was able to find some peace of mind and slowly familiarize myself with the application process. They were so incredibly patient and kind and so respectful. I now try to help others with the process, too.” 

With a three-month-old daughter added to the family and her husband beside her, Mercredi says she feels optimistic about the future. 

“I now know the city, I can navigate it, everything is much easier for me. I can’t thank the organization enough and I hope to one day soon be able to contribute financially to their fundraisers, so they can continue helping families create a new life here.”  

The Welcome Collective equips an average of 10 to 12 families a week and many of the volunteers are themselves refugees who’ve benefited from the organization’s services. 

A circle of love and support that keeps on generating more of the same. A signal to newcomers that, despite the many odds and difficulties they’ve encountered and will undoubtedly encounter in the future, they’ve finally landed in a place that cares for and welcomes them –and values them as human beings deserving of dignity and respect. 

If you would like to donate, you can do so by going here. ■

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis here.