Canada has long been a place of refuge for people seeking freedom and fleeing persecution. But a refugee’s journey doesn’t end when they hit Canadian soil. While many refugees can take advantage of government support, the private generosity of volunteer citizen organizations often eases their transition into a new home, language, and society.
One such organization is Ottawa Mennonite Refugee Assistance, now known through the acronym OMRA. Their mission is to make it easier for resettled refugees to get affordable housing in Ottawa, and OMRA’s President, Maria Rigby, has supported refugees for over 30 years.
Maria’s reasons for getting involved were simple. “How could I be so fortunate and not be aware of people who need to be welcomed, need to have someone put their arm around them and help them?” she asks. “These people have really suffered, and we are so fortunate that we can help them rather than be helped.”
OMRA, which is funded through various sources such as private donations and a grocery card program, originally supported refugee families. Recently, the organization transitioned to supporting single refugees, childless couples, or single mothers when they realized that those refugees were most at risk of being unable to afford rent after paying for food and other basic costs of living.
“Refugees have to be referred to us through an agency like Ottawa Community Immigrant Services, the Catholic Centre for Immigrants, or a private sponsorship group, and we conduct an interview with them to determine their level of need,” explains Maria.
The next step is providing a portable rent subsidy to help them cover rental costs and make ends meet. “We knew that otherwise, these individuals would be homeless, and we could not understand how we would invite people to come to our country and then put them in such a helpless situation,” she says.
OMRA also works with various other local organizations to help provide newcomers with supplies and furniture and has started a mentoring, tutoring, and friendship group to help refugees learn basic skills like paying credit card bills or refilling prescriptions.
“Our goal is to help people when they need it most and help them achieve a level of independence,” notes Maria. “We’re there to ensure they can focus on finding work without worrying about where they’ll get their next meal or whether they’ll be homeless next month,” she concludes.
“We just want to make sure they are ok so that they can do their job, which is to become a Canadian — a happy, contributing Canadian.”
For more information on OMRA or to contribute, please visit www.omraottawa.org.