by Oriana Ngabirano and Tess Fremont-Cote
for the Somerset West and Centretown Community Health Centres
Refugees and immigrants come to Ottawa with hopes of a better future. Their journey here is seldom easy. Often, they are fleeing difficult situations with the hope of integrating and contributing to a new society they can call home. So what happens when they get here?
When immigrants land in Ottawa, they have the daunting task of relearning basic life skills. This includes learning a new language and how to navigate a new society’s complex systems such as health care.
They often have to learn these skills while experiencing challenges such as culture shock, securing adequate employment (because they have foreign qualifications), and finding safe and affordable housing. Immigrants and refugees are commonly stigmatized by being labeled “foreign,” “bogus” or “uncivilized,” and can experience racial discrimination and hate crimes.
Commnunity health centres (CHCs) across Ontario, including Centretown and Somerset West, have been welcoming newcomers for decades. We pride ourselves in ensuring that anyone who comes through our doors is welcome. We believe everyone matters, including people who face challenges accessing health and social services because of their immigration status.
With the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment and Islamophobia, immigrants and racialized communities in Canada are experiencing increased insecurity and violence.
While Ottawa has taken important steps to welcome refugees, many people with precarious immigration status fall through the cracks. This is because they are afraid of accessing municipal (and other) services for fear that revealing their status could lead to deportation.
Because of this fear, they don’t call 9-1-1 in an emergency, they don’t report crimes to the police, and they don’t access recreational activities that contribute to health and well-being.
Designating Ottawa a “sanctuary city” would strengthen the city’s commitment to welcoming refugees and immigrants and ensuring their safety.
It would send the strong message to our friends and neighbours with precarious immigration status that they can access municipal services without fear. It would mean people knowing they won’t be asked about their immigration status.
“People shouldn’t be living in fear. As the nation’s capital, we want to see the City of Ottawa officially state its commitment to being a welcoming city to immigrants and refugees. We need to communicate that ‘you are safe here and you are welcome here,’ because right now lots of people don’t know that,” says Siffan Rahman, manager of Somerset West Community Health Centre’s Ottawa Newcomer Health Centre (ONHC).
CHCs have always worked to provide a safe and welcoming environment for all. We do this by training staff and having policies in place to ensure that community members access our services without discrimination.
Recently, for example, Somerset West CHC reaffirmed its commitment to providing culturally sensitive care by developing an anti-racism and anti-oppression policy.
Now, we turn to the City of Ottawa to formally mirror this sentiment and strengthen its commitment to providing immigrants and refugees with a safe place to live.
Centretown and Somerset West CHCs are asking you to support the movement to make Ottawa a sanctuary city, following in the steps of other Canadian cities such as Toronto, Hamilton, London and Montreal.
Online, tweet #SanctuaryCityOttawa to advocate for the initiative in the coming months, and speak freely to friends and family.
By moving forward with a motion to become a sanctuary city, we strongly believe that Ottawa can demonstrate its commitment to being an inclusive, friendly, and safe city for all.
Here’s to taking one step further together in ensuring that, in our city, everyone is welcome!
This column is a collaboration between the Centretown and Somerset West Community Health Centres (CHCs). They provide a full range of health and social services to individuals and families. Through leadership and support, they foster the active participation of individuals and groups in a common effort to build healthier communities.