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Multicultural Association of Perth Huron expands programs to help migrant workers

Gezahgn Wordofa, Founder of Multicultural Association of Perth Huron, has spent many hours during the pandemic bringing many donated items such as computers, bicycles, masks and groceries to newcomers and migrant workers across Huron-Perth. (Colin Burrowes Photo)

Huron-Perth – The Multicultural Association of Perth Huron and Local Immigration Services have been helping new Canadians since the COVID-19 pandemic began by providing items such as groceries, computers, bicycles and masks to families in need. A group of volunteer drivers has also spent many hours making sure people can make it to important appointments and walk-in clinics in nearby cities.

“The people who call us, we give them food, masks – for some people it’s even difficult to get masks,” said Gezahgn Wordofa, Founder of Multicultural Association of Perth Huron.

“If it’s a new family, they may not know where to get them.”

The Multicultural Association is helping people follow the medical recommendations of Huron Perth Public Health.

“Some newcomers don’t understand English, we give them flyers in different languages so they understand about COVID,” said Wordofa. “We let them know they have to stay home or wear masks when they go out.”

For some local immigrants, staying home has caused many problems which the Multicultural Association is working hard to help them deal with, but to achieve this goal it relies almost entirely on donations and the goodwill of local church groups, government sponsors and the Salvation Army, which Wordofa said he is grateful for. Suggested donation items are masks, computers which allow for both tutoring and communication with friends and family around the world,  and bicycles. Another way he suggests people can get involved is to offer to help teach English to newcomers using Skype or Zoom.

Recently, the association also began helping temporary foreign workers working in the region.

“They are coming to the shops, we see them,” said Wordofa. “Sometimes they complain. They tell us about their situation. It’s hidden. We try to help them. They are here. They are human.”

Wordofa said he was going to invite some workers to the interview with the Listowel Banner, but for confidentiality reasons and to protect the employers who have brought them to Canada, they were not allowed to participate.

“We are working with a campaign very heartily, with the local immigration service,” he said.

New Canadians used to have to travel to Kitchener to get legal papers and visas, but now those things can be done locally.

Wordofa said work has been done with the help of Huron Perth Public Health and COVID-19 testing centres to help get testing done, especially when some of the workers are leaving Canada. Certain countries have heavy restrictions on travel and a negative test may be needed for some workers to return home.

“In our newcomers, there have been no positives, always negative,” he said.

With September approaching and preparations for the return to school ramping up, Wordofa said there is hard work going into making sure families are provided with masks and that they understand the risks associated with sending children back to in-person classroom settings, but he understands how important socialization is for mental health.

“It’s not easy to stay home,” he said. “We lost one of our newcomers. He hung himself during COVID because of isolation … they can’t meet with people from back home. There is not any more culture. There are not any more holidays … We lost one of the best people. He was a graduate and he hung himself.”

Without local transportation systems, it can be tough for immigrants in rural communities, especially migrant workers. This is why they are collecting donations of bicycles; Wordofa hopes it will give people a bit more freedom of movement.

“They tell us about their situation. It’s hidden. We try to help them. They are here. They are human.”

– Gezahgn Wordofa, Founder of Multicultural Association of Perth Huron

With the computers they pass out, Wordofa hopes people can access programs such as Skype and connect with friends and family back home to help them during this period of isolation.

“We have reached out with special programs so they can chat,” he said. “We thank everyone who has given computers.”

Wordofa mentioned he is very grateful for the support the Multicultural Association receives from the local Chamber of Commerce.

“We are very lucky for all the support,” he said. “We can give newcomers addresses and information about where they can get support or how they can contact the police if they need help.”

Although it was very busy earlier in the pandemic, Wordofa said at this point, things are a little calmer because some people can go out to pick up supplies themselves.

“At first, nobody saw each other,” he said. “There was no movement. When I was driving downtown it was a ghost city. I’m lucky. I see people in the park who are still alive. It is very good. The community, the government, the health department – they gave us recommendations to follow and we are still here.”

The help the Multicultural Association is offering migrant workers is additional to the regular programs it offers newcomers.

“Normally we’re not involved with worker immigrants because they are temporary immigrants,” he said. “We are helping them because they were reaching out… they call us because we have the local immigration service program if they need help sorting out problems with their visa. Normally we don’t need to do this but now we have to.”

Wordofa said any immigrants in the area are welcome to visit the website  or call 226-229-1547.

“We’d love to help them,” he said. “They used to go to Kitchener but now we can help them.”

Many Canadians have been helpful and supportive, but Wordofa knows from experience that not everyone is welcoming. Some people have made him feel like he does not fit in in Canada, so that is another reason he wants to help newcomers.

“My wife is Canadian but I came from Europe,” he said. “I have a very good background, sometimes I almost fit in, but sometimes I am thinking, why am I here?”

He came for a better life but he has felt the brunt of what he describes as systemic racism in Canada, so he knows it is an issue many newcomers are struggling with.

He recounted an experience which happened at a local Tim Hortons last week. A young man driving a large pickup truck told Wordofa to “go back home.”

He asked the young man where he would have to go to be home.

The young man told him, ‘Africa.’

“I told him before I go back to my home I want to shake your hand because you must be First Nations – he said,  ‘no, I’m not First Nations.’ He’s not indigenous. He told me he’s British. Britain? We’re all newcomers.”

Wordofa said the young man ended up apologizing for his behaviour.

“We are very positive,” he said. “Lead by respect.”

Colin Burrowes is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter for the Listowel Banner. The Local Journalism Initiative Program is funded by the Government of Canada.