Since November 2015, over 27,000 Syrian refugees have arrived in Canada. 1,400 of those refugees have settled in Calgary. Welcoming refugees and newcomers isn’t new for our city. According to the City of Calgary, we welcome an average of 1100 refugees per year from around the world and in 2014 we welcomed over 19,000 immigrants and newcomers to our city.
Arriving in a new country and city can be incredibly overwhelming. A newcomer might not be aware of the resources and services available to help them. They may not know how to best access a resource, or know which one is the best fit for their needs. They may still be learning English, which creates another barrier to getting the help they need.
That’s where 211 Calgary’s information and referral specialists come in.
“When people come over to Canada there is so much here and so many services that they can access, but it’s hard for them to know where to go and how to get there,” said Robyn Romano, 211 Program Supervisor at Distress Centre Calgary. “An information and referral specialist can connect them to the supports they need in Calgary, in their community.”
Curtis Bader is one of those specialists. He said he has received calls from Syrian refugees, but just like with the Fort McMurray evacuees he’s experienced more people calling in wanting to help the refugees than the refugees calling in themselves.
Bader said he wasn’t surprised that so many Calgarians want to help. “I think that this is an issue that tugs on a lot of people’s heart strings,” he explained. “I think people are always looking for a way to give back, and sometimes they just don’t know how.”
Bader said he has been able to connect those looking to volunteer or donate with the immigrant serving agencies who have taken the lead on settling refugees, such as the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society.
Bader also pointed out that though the Syrian refugee program has been widely reported on in the news, Calgary always has newcomers in need of help and support.
“A lot of the time, people realize there’s a need for this group of people because it’s on the news,” he said. “They don’t realize that there’s a need for everybody in this city and for all the refugees from other countries who come every year.”
Though many of the calls have been from potential volunteers and donors, 211 still receives many calls from newcomers looking for resources. Bader said he’s found the translation services 211 offers to be immensely helpful in assisting newcomers who are not yet proficient in English. Through this service, 211 referral support is available in over 200 languages.
“[The translation service] is super vital,” Bader said. “It’s much easier to use it, than having [a caller] struggle and be frustrated.”
Another lesser known service that 211 offers is follow-up calls and contingency planning.
“If someone may need some additional resources, or we aren’t sure if someone is going to be able to access the resources we’ve provided, or we think they might just need a little additional support after calling those resources, we’ll provide what’s called the follow-up report,” Romano explained. “We’ll asked if we can get their name and phone number and if it okay if we call them back in a few days and see how they made out with those resources. Through that we can see if there’s any additional support or help that’s needed.”
If the caller’s needs have still not been met and there are no other resources the information and referral specialists can offer them, they can help them contingency plan.
Financial needs is consistently a top issue on our 211 line. Chelsea Durber, an information and referral specialist, said that contingency planning frequently happens with these calls.
“We get a lot of calls related to utilities or rent support,” Durber said. “If they’re not able to access the four or five main sources of financial support in Calgary then we can help connect them to the Calgary Food Bank and then they can use the money they were spending on food towards the utilities instead.”
Information and referral specialists are cross-trained with Distress Centre training, meaning that they are prepared to offer crisis support to newcomers as well. Newcomers often arrive in Calgary with nothing or very little and are faced with a variety of issues they need to deal with in an unfamiliar city. All of this can take a huge emotional toll.
“We’re able to bring the stress levels down, try and ask relevant questions and point them in the right direction, and them give them that emotional support,” Durber said, adding that follow-ups are sometimes done to check in on their emotional well-being, as well as see if they were able to access the resources.
So far, 2016 has been a busy year for 211. Amid the recession, Fort McMurray wild fires and influx of Syrian refugees we have seen a 17.6% increase in calls to 211 in 2016, compared to the same time period in 2015.
We encourage anyone seeking resources to call 211, and want to especially emphasize that we are well-equipped to assist new Canadians. Call 211, 24 hours a day, to get connected. We are pleased to now offer online chat from 12-8pm daily at ab.211.ca