The RECONNECT 2023 conference set out to convene people working in philanthropy to share ideas and insights, and to learn from one another. The Supporting Newcomers & Immigrants session, moderated by Marina Nuri of the World Education Services (WES) Mariam Assefa Fund, brought together Yara Younis of RADIUS SFU Refugee Livelihood Lab, Syed Hussan of Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, and Frances Pace of the Oakville Community Foundation to discuss how to better support people who have moved to Canada for new opportunities or have been forcibly displaced from their home countries. 

The session was led by the Mariam Assefa Fund, which is the philanthropic arm of WES, a non-profit social enterprise that supports the educational, economic, and social inclusion of immigrants, refugees, and international students. Through grantmaking, impact investing, and partnerships, the WES Mariam Assefa Fund aims to create more inclusive economies and communities in the U.S. and Canada. The Fund supports efforts to ensure that all immigrants and refugees can achieve their goals and thrive.

This session was sought after. The room was pouring into the hallways with enthusiasm, ideas and the openness to listen and learn. The panelists shared their perspectives on why immigrants and refugees in communities should not be overlooked by funders and on how philanthropy could best support these communities. Community foundation leaders, others from the sector, and Ukrainian delegates participated and focused on solutions. One solution that emerged was the support of refugee and immigrant-led and focused organizations, embodying ‘nothing for us, without us.’

Despite the general perception that newcomer-focused programs and organizations are already well-funded by the Canadian government, there are many gaps and blind spots in the system, leaving more than a million people with little or no access to supports and services. There is an opportunity for philanthropic organizations to fund solutions that support the success of newcomers in Canada.

Hussan’s organization, Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC), is part of the national Migrant Rights Network and does important advocacy and direct support work focused on temporary and undocumented workers, as well as international students working in essential jobs. There are half a million undocumented people in Canada, and more than a million temporary foreign workers. Despite being core members of our communities, these individuals are the most prone to exploitation and abuse from employers due to their immigration status. These workers do not have access to government services, so funding available for organizations such as MWAC is very limited.

“There are 1.2 million migrants entering Canada each year, in addition to half a million undocumented people. These numbers are much higher than permanent residents or immigrants; and migrants face exploitation at work, denial of basic services like universal healthcare and separation from their families. Despite the exclusions, migrants are organizing in farms, in factories, on post-secondary campuses and in communities, identifying their demands and taking action to win them, through organizations like ours. And temporary migration is not separate from other issues – when there are 1.7 million people who can be underpaid, the entire economy is impacted; when there are 1.7 million people forced to access private healthcare or pay much more for schooling, then all our services are affected. Whether you are interested in anti-poverty, women’s rights, climate change or any other issues – migrants are the frontline of the crisis and the forefront of change.”

Syed Hussan, Migrant Workers Alliance for Change

Even for organizations serving “eligible” populations such as refugees and newcomers, there are still barriers to access funding, especially if they are doing more innovative, systems change work. Younis, who works at the RADIUS Refugee Livelihood Lab, a part of Simon Fraser University, shared about difficulties that their BIPOC-women led team faces in accessing funding. Experiencing a lot of misconceptions about themselves and their innovative work to support social innovators from newcomer and refugee communities, Younis and her colleagues spend a lot of time explaining to funders that systems change work takes time, intention and reflection, and most importantly – trust.

“Funders seeking to support migrants and refugees need to expand their services and eligibility to all types of status that exist in Canada. Often, people holding temporary status, refugee claimants, and undocumented individuals fall through the cracks across all aspects of life. It is crucial for funders to follow the lead of these impacted communities, who are increasingly facing systemic challenges that only they can fully understand due to their unique lived experiences. The livelihood of migrants and refugees is not a trend for funders to pick and choose from, but rather these are communities settling into Canada on a daily basis with severely lacking support in terms of access to employment, education, housing, community, financial support, and much more. Trust-based philanthropy is the ideal approach when working with migrant and refugee groups who often endure rapidly changing circumstances on the ground and need to pivot to survive. Overall, funders should focus on lowering barriers to funding for every migrant and refugee regardless of status, and to listen while taking a step back as they use their expertise to lead and inform initiatives.”

Yara Younis, RADIUS SFU Refugee Livelihood Lab

Pace brought the voice of a community foundation taking part in this work. She reflects on the session being enlightening.

The Oakville Resettlement Fund was established in 2015 during the Syrian Resettlement crisis, and has helped support the local needs of immigrants and refugees, specifically Syrian and Afghan refugees. This Fund now supports Ukrainian refugees in the Oakville area.

“Participating in the Supporting Newcomers & Immigrants session at the conference was frightening for someone like me who is not comfortable with public speaking. I was on a panel alongside two incredibly knowledgeable individuals – Hussan and Yara – who left me in awe of their tireless efforts. As I reflected on the session and what should be said, I realized that although we were not at the front line directly supporting humanitarian efforts, the work we were doing at the Oakville Community Foundation to support newcomers was an important message to share with other community foundations on what can be done locally. I talked about our Oakville Resettlement Fund which was and continues to be a concerted, community-wide effort of our, Board, donors and local organizations to bring support and hopeful vision to those fleeing their countries and resettling in our community. It is our local solution to a global issue and a solution I was, in the end, happy to get outside of my comfort zone and proud to talk about publicly.”

Frances Pace, Oakville Community Foundation

Nuri, who is the the director of the WES Mariam Assefa Fund’s Canada strategy and programs, says she was grateful to have Younis and Syed, long-term grantee partners of the Fund, augment the conversation. 

“I was delighted to see so much interest in our session, and it gave me hope to observe that the funders in the room were really impacted by what Hussan and Yara were sharing about the communities they support and the hoops they have to jump through to access funding. I think many funders do not realize that there is such a huge funding gap and enormous systemic inequities in the immigrant and refugee sector. There is a real need for philanthropy to move from looking at these communities only when a humanitarian crisis hits, to a more thoughtful and collaborative approach to addressing needs and systemic barriers that various immigrant and refugee communities face. These populations have been the core part of the fabric of Canadian society for years, and the community as a whole cannot be well-off if such a big part of it is facing serious inequities and lack of funding. That’s why I think there is a huge opportunity for community foundations to step in.”

Marina Nuri, World Education Services (WES) Mariam Assefa Fund

To learn more about the WES Mariam Assefa Fund, and their support to refugees and immigrants, check out their website.