The Karen Community Initiative A successful example of settlement agencies, community and volunteers working together

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1 The Karen Community Initiative A successful example of settlement agencies, community and volunteers working together Initiative Description In response to the arrival of a large group of Karen refugees, the Ottawa community came out to support and assist the new arrivals with adapting and settling into life in the Ottawa area. Volunteers from the general public and the established Karen community played a key role in assisting the incoming refugees; filling gaps in the services offered by Ottawa area settlement agencies and going beyond to offer friendship and guidance. Background In 2006, in cooperation with UNHCR, the Federal government began the process of resettling over 800 Karen refugees from camps on the Thailand-Burma border to Canadian cities. As part of this process, Ottawa is slated to receive close to 200 Karen refugees by the end of The first group of Karen, 98 persons in total, arrived in September of Government sponsored Karen refugees arriving in Ottawa initially stay at Maison Therese Dallaire Reception House, a temporary residence facility operated by the Catholic Immigration Centre. While at Reception House, the Karen received initial settlement support, housing help and medical checkups. After an initial stay of up to 5 weeks, with the assistance of settlement and housing workers, residents move out to permanent accommodation. As the Karen began to arrive in the fall of 2006, the Catholic Immigration Centre of Ottawa and the Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization were at fore front of delivering services to the Karen. Staff at the organizations recruited volunteers, responded to media inquiries, and assisted the newly arrived Karen with adjusting to life in Ottawa. As a high-needs group, coming from a long stay in refugee camps, the Karen require extensive assistance and education to ensure their adjustment and integration into Canadian life. Initial Community Response Response from Media One of the key factors in informing the public and mobilizing support for the Karen refugees was the extensive and positive media coverage. Local and national media interviewed incoming refugees, service providers and community members on the issues faced by the Karen as they settled in Ottawa. Media coverage extended to cover the history of the Karen refugees as they escaped oppression in Burma and settled into refugee camps in Thailand. Media attention was essential in informing the general public of the need for donations and volunteer support to help the Karen with overcoming the barriers to successful settlement in their new home.

2 One of the best known success stories was an offer of farm land for use by the Karen community from an Ottawa area resident, which was a result of a news article that ran in the Ottawa Citizen. Roger Stone had read the article and realizing a need to contribute, has loaned a section of his farm to the Karen, allowing them to grow vegetables and participate in a common activity. Response from Community Groups Church Groups A number of Ottawa area churches have been active in mobilizing volunteer support and gathering donations to help the Karen refugees. As with any other cause, churches can play a vital role in informing their congregations and the community at large of the issues at hand and the need to help. The Bromley Baptist Church, having, in the past, sponsored refugees from Burma, supported the incoming Karen by: - Donating clothing and other essential items - Organized outings and social activities - Helping to organize a Karen language church service - Organizing ESL classes Settled Karen The original Karen community in Ottawa consisted of about 20 persons, many of them privately sponsored refugees. This small community was invaluable in assisting the settlement agencies and the Karen newcomers. Community members donated their time as translators and interpreters, helped to organize community events and offered their friendship to the incoming Karen. A number of the more active volunteers have since been hired on by settlement agencies, allowing them to dedicate more of their time to helping their fellow community members. Response from the Ottawa Community The high profile of the Karen refugees attracted considerable interest from the Ottawa community. Volunteers offered their time to assist the Karen directly and to support the programs and services offered to the newcomers. Due to the language barrier, volunteers were not always able to work directly with the Karen but instead assisted settlement staff with administrative duties, organized and supported events, and acted as advocates for the Karen community. As the Karen improve their English language skills, volunteers will be able to take on roles requiring direct contact with the Karen. The Host Program, funded by Citizenship and Immigration Canada, and operated in Ottawa by the Catholic Immigration Centre, is an excellent example of volunteer involvement with the Karen community. As the Karen gain basic English language skills, they become able to enter and participate in the Host program. Some Karen, having learned basic English before coming to Ottawa, were able to enter the Host program soon after arriving in the city. Host program counsellors recruited volunteers who are able and interested in being matched with persons coming from a prolonged refugee situation. 2

3 A small group of key volunteers, passionate about the cause and willing to contribute considerable time and energy, were instrumental in initiating new projects, advocating on behalf of the Karen, and mobilizing the Ottawa community. These key volunteers worked to coordinate others and provided considerable support to the Karen. Recruiting such key volunteers is difficult at best; most had pre-existing ties with the community or were already strongly active in other causes. It is therefore crucial to support and encourage this core group of invaluable volunteers, as it may be impossible to replace them if they become discouraged, exhausted or frustrated with the volunteer experience. 3 SUMMARY OF VOLUNTEER ACTIVITIES Activities Description Administration Assisting settlement agencies and other service providers with documentation, organizing meetings and providing support as necessary. Advocacy Advocating on behalf of the Karen community and raising the profile of the Karen in the media. Emergency Providing assistance when it is needed. Settlement agencies are not always able to offer support after office hours but dedicated volunteers have been available to assist with medical emergencies and other situations requiring immediate attention. Escort Escorting was especially important in the first months of the Karens arrival. Karen speaking volunteers acted as interpreters while non-karen speakers offered a ride or showed the Karen how to take the bus. Friendship The Host program establishes friendship matches between Canadian volunteers and newcomers to Ottawa. Karen interested in participating in the program were matched with an Ottawa area volunteer. Workshops Facilitating and helping to organize settlement workshops. Ongoing Projects and Initiatives Farm Land The farm land, generously provided to the Karen community by Roger Stone, is continually being developed by the Karen and community volunteers. Many of the Karen grew food while staying at the refugee camps, some worked as farmers before fleeing Burma. The farm land provides a place for the Karen to work and succeed together as a community. Host Program The Host program matches Canadian volunteers with newcomers to Ottawa. Karen refugees were informed of the program shortly after their arrival at Reception House. Host program staff continue to perform outreach within the Karen community. While, overcoming the language

4 barrier is challenging, the effort brings results as the Karen gain new friends in the City and Ottawa area residents establish contact with newcomers to their community. Karen Community of Ottawa The Karen Community of Ottawa is an organization formed in the spring of 2007 to bring together the Karen people of Ottawa and support the Karen cultural heritage. Based out of the Bronson Centre, the organization offers Karen language classes and works to promote Karen culture in the Ottawa area. The Karen Community of Ottawa held its first general meeting on March 30 th, 2007, over 50 people were present at the meeting with representatives from the Karen and Ottawa communities in attendance. Workshops Workshops organized by the Catholic Immigration Centre, Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organizations and other service providers offer continuing support to the Karen. Workshops cover relevant topics that facilitate the Karen s settlement and integration in Ottawa. Volunteers play a key role; Karen speaking volunteers assist with facilitating the workshops while others help with the organization. As the Karen acquire and improve their English language skills they are introduced to new workshop topics such as computer use, obtaining a drivers license and work skills training. Addressing Challenges Language Barrier The language barrier was a challenge and initial communication between the Karen and service providers was extremely minimal. Few Ottawa residents spoke Karen and Burmese speaking interpreters could not be used for political reasons, even though many of the Karen spoke Burmese. Karen already living in Ottawa were invaluable as interpreters and a number of them found employment with the Catholic Immigration Centre and the Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization. Karen refugee youth were also helpful since some had studied English while staying in the camps. 4 High Profile While the high profile of the Karen refugee group was instrumental in attracting support from the community, it also put increased pressure on service providers who felt intrusion into what were their everyday activities. Addressing community concerns and ensuring that services and programs were delivered fairly and in accordance with standard practices was a key task for the service providers.

5 5 Level of Support There exists some controversy over the level of support that should be offered to the Karen. On the one side it is considered that an important part of settlement services is to build coping strategies and provide newcomers with the tools necessary to settle and adapt to life in Canada. On the other side it is argued that high needs refugees, such as the Karen, require additional support. Lack of this intense support could be dangerous to the health and well being of a person faced with a completely new and different environment. What has come out of the Ottawa experience is a mixture of these two approaches. While service providers take the hands off approach, providing the necessary tools and information, volunteers and community activists are often in closer contact with the Karen, helping them with everyday activities. Multiple Groups The initial group of 98 Karen refugees arrived in Ottawa in the fall of Since that time a number of small groups have arrived and continue to arrive. This has posed a challenge to service providers because of the varying needs of the growing Karen community. While the initial group of 98 Karen refugees now require assistance with things like employment and obtaining drivers licenses, the new arrivals require the initial assistance that was offered back in the fall of Karen speaking settlement staff can become overwhelmed by the diversity of needs. The solution has been to recruit and train the initial arrivals in providing settlement support. Working as volunteers these Karen are now helping new arrivals with the challenges that they themselves experienced a year ago. Lack of Resources A high profile, high needs refugee group arriving in large numbers has placed a strain on the available settlement services and community resources. An insufficient number of Karen speaking settlement staff has been one of the major issues. A lack of interpreters and translators as well as multilingual forms and documents has also placed a strain on the available interpretation/translation resources. This lack of resources has created a high need for volunteers to handle the extra load and has consequently placed extra pressure on service providers to recruit, train and retain the volunteers necessary to support staff and fill gaps in addressing the needs of the Karen. Guide for Settlement Organizations Before Arrival - raise awareness in the media and the community of the incoming refugee group - if available, recruit members of the ethnic group from the community and train them in providing interpretation/translation and settlement related services - inform staff and volunteers of the culture, history and special needs of the incoming refugee group

6 - begin recruiting volunteers that will be dedicated to the cause and able to offer considerable time and energy. Recruit through existing networks, such as life long volunteers, active community members, retired settlement sector employees Upon Arrival - provide media releases and invite the media - introduce key community leaders to the group and their story - connect the settled community with the arriving refugees - inform the public through the media and presentations of the group s culture, history and special needs - identify motivated individuals within the group that could act as guides and volunteers - recruit volunteers to provide general assistance First Year - facilitate group cohesion through community events and activities - assist group leaders in developing self help initiatives and other community programs including a community organization - develop a community meeting space - assist the group in making connections and establishing networks in the community, for example, ex. Host program, community events, etc - recruit group members with advanced English language skills to assist with interpretation/translation and settlement related services What s Next As the Karen population in Ottawa nears 200, it is important to continue to offer the generous support that has been so kindly provided by the Ottawa community and service providers. This support should be redirected towards enabling the Karen and facilitating their active involvement in the Ottawa community. Supporting the Karen Community of Ottawa organization through partnerships and capacity building initiatives will be one of the key objectives for Ottawa area organizations working with the Karen community. Thank You Information gathered through interviews with community members, volunteers and settlement workers proved invaluable in the development of this report. The Catholic Immigration Centre of Ottawa would like to thank all those who contributed to this project. This report was produced for OCASI s Promoting Newcomers Integration and Social Inclusion Project, which was made possible with the support of the Government of Ontario. 6

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