The names of people that responded to the author’s questions are not disclosed for security reasons.
Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, once said that “Refugees have skills, ideas, hopes, and dream […] They are also tough, resilient and creative, with the energy and drive to shape their own destinies, given the chance”. Refugee613 shares this vision of refugees.
Refugee613 is an Ottawa based non-government organization whose mission is to inform and connect refugee agencies and clients to welcome and settle refugees. To do so, the organization has come up with an innovative idea of accessing services and information by using WhatsApp groups as virtual community platforms.
The chat, which launched in March 2017, responds to the complex problems refugees face. Newcomers usually find it challenging to navigating the network of service providers and access to information is limited. Their experience is often worsened by language barriers, limited access to transportation and have loads of paperwork to complete. Not to mention finding housing, suitable clothing for a new climate and work.
Zaid Tellawi, the Digital Outreach Coordinator at Refugee613, recognizes that a significant number of refugees and newcomers are often not aware of agencies dedicated to assisting their needs. Often, they turn to online resources, former refugees or members of their community for advice. As a result, they may get incomplete, irrelevant or inaccurate information based on the personal experiences of others.
As a response to the problem, in collaboration with the YMCA-WYCA’s Newcomer Information Centre, Refugee613 is undertaking an innovative outreach initiative to ensure refugees receive accurate answers to their questions. This pilot project took the shape of an Arabic WhatsApp group offering advice and providing referrals to Arab refugees and newcomers in Ottawa.
One member of the WhatsApp group said that the group has helped them understand their rights as a refugee.
“It helps us get the latest information about workshops related to newcomers,” they said. “The group also helps deliver information about the requirements for employment and eligibility, for many things and the laws in Ontario.”
Tellawi and the communications team at Refugee613 monitor the WhatsApp group members, doing their best to answer the members’ inquiries within 24 hours. Questions and answers can be typed as a WhatsApp message or can even be sent as an audio recording to accommodate members with lower literacy levels.
The group’s membership currently stands at 256 people – the maximum a WhatsApp group can host – with a waiting list of 20. Membership is opened to anyone who would benefit from the information available on the group in Arabic. However, some non-mandatory questions are asked of the members to better tailor services to their needs.
To protect its members, Refugee613 developed a set of community standards that help them understand what kind of posts are allowed on the group. The administrators’ rules are strictly followed, a recognizable difference from other similar chatrooms, according to group members.
“This group is definitely different from other groups […] the admins are strict when it comes to making sure that the group’s posts are far from racism and politics,” says one member.
Members are encouraged to ask any questions they have related to health, employment, language acquisition, education, legal issues and any other concerns they may have. Refugee613 will answer the questions in collaboration with Information Centre Referral Specialists at the YMCA – YWCA Newcomer Information Centre.
One group member, T.J., says they learned about the English Language Tutoring for the Ottawa Community (ELTOC) from the group which has made learning English a possibility.
“I benefitted from the ELTOC program because I have a baby at home and can’t attend the school, so the program provided me with a teacher who comes to my house,” says T.J.
Other refugees have been connected to more pressing health services. Through the group H.T. learned there is a list of Ottawa dentists willing to take on refugees as patients.
“I contacted the closest dentist and got my tooth filling that was hurting me for months fixed. The dentist even treated me like his mother, with the utmost respect,” says H.T.
The group has evolved and widened its membership since opening. Through word of mouth, pre-arrival refugees who are expected to be resettled in Ottawa have started to contact the group’s administrator from outside Canada, sometimes several months ahead of arrival.
“Even though I am still in Lebanon, I have benefitted a lot from the information and answers,” says one member.
Refugee613’s team has also been able to uncover fraudulent activities taking advantage of Ottawa’s refugee community through monitoring the chat. With the help of UNHCR, the organization is helping raise awareness on how to detect deceitful posts that may put refugees in dangerous situations.
Through the group refugees in Ottawa are even able to give back to the community that welcomed them. After the devastating flooding of the Ottawa region in April and May, the City of Ottawa sent out a call for volunteers to support flood recovery efforts in the most affected areas. The request was shared with the group and the next day, 15 members joined Tellawi to move sandbags from homes affected by the floods.
“I was motivated to help because the Canadian people showed us nothing but positive things since the day we arrived at the airport,” says one group member who volunteered. “I am happy that I found a way to help at times of hardship.”
But the group has also been useful in providing newcomers with ways to integrate into their new community as well. The group has promoted Canada 150 events, and in March it got 52 newcomers of all ages to participate in a skating event hosted by the Governor General of Canada.
“It was the first time we attend a skating event and it was a very lovely experience,” says a newcomer who attend the event. “We met the Governor General and the admin of the WhatsApp group and they helped my children learn how to skate.”
Refugee613, enjoying the success of the group chat, is exploring ways in which it can extend the experience in to the francophone community as well.