Creating a Just and Supportive Environment for Refugee Claimants
Adapting to a new country, culture, and language can be challenging under the best of circumstances. For refugees who have lost everything fleeing violence and oppression, a complex immigration process can seem like an insurmountable obstacle.
The Mennonite Coalition for Refugee Support (MCRS), in Kitchener, Ontario, helps people seeking safety overcome the obstacles.
A two-year grant from LFO helped MCRS develop the Volunteer Legal Support Program to increase the help available for unrepresented refugee claimants. With the grant MCRS was able to hire a coordinator to recruit, train, supervise, track, and recognize volunteers. The volunteers support refugee claimants throughout the refugee determination process.
During two years that LFO provided funding, MCRS staff members worked with 53 legal support volunteers from 12 countries. Together they provided support for approximately 450 refugee claims.
MCRS is often a first stop for refugees. The Centre helps people navigate the refugee claimant process, complete important forms and applications, access legal counsel, apply for work permits and much more. However, not long after the program was developed Bill C-31 brought changes in Canada’s immigration system. These changes left the Centre with forms, checklists, training materials, and a database that needed updating.
Working with outdated materials made it harder to help refugees access justice, safety, and security. It also forced MCRS to spend more time on the refugee claim process – time the staff and volunteers badly needed to help refugee families find emergency housing and important social services.
The LFO provided a follow-up grant to help MCRS change that.
Now MCRS staff and volunteers are trained, prepared, and organized to help using new office forms, an updated database and a revised training manual. The Centre reports that these updates have made a difference for staff, volunteers, and the refugees they serve.
For example, two young, well-educated sisters from the Middle East fled to Canada. After barely escaping their home country with their lives, they went to MCRS when they found themselves overwhelmed by the refugee claim process.
MCRS staff and volunteers were ready to use the new, up-to-date materials. They were able to help the sisters move from feeling powerless to being empowered to help themselves.
Both women received positive decisions at their refugee claim hearings. They have moved into their own apartment. They volunteer regularly at several community organizations and are actively looking for work.
“They are success stories in our eyes and we couldn’t have supported them as effectively without the LFO grant,” MCRS Executive Director Eunice Valenzuela reported.
She also shared this quotation from a son whose mother received a positive immigration decision after getting support at MCRS:
Now I feel as if a mountain has been removed off my shoulders, now I feel that my mother is safe under my care. I can take care of her in all aspects. I wanted to have her among us, family and friends and other relatives. Now my mom is in a safe place, now I have peace of mind. Thank you MCRS.
LFO thanks the dedicated MCRS staff and volunteers who developed this program and who keep it running, and the legal community for making possible grants such as the ones MCRS received.
Lawyers and paralegals perform legal services that result in funds being deposited in mixed trust accounts. These funds generate millions of dollars in interest that go to the LFO and are used to support Legal Aid Ontario and to make grants that improve access to justice. Since it was created by provincial legislation in 1974, the LFO has provided more than $900 million in funding for this purpose.