From November 2015 to December 2016, the Canadian Government’s #WelcomeRefugees initiatives resettled over 39,600 Syrian refugees in communities across Canada. Approximately 6,000 Syrians have settled in Toronto, one of Canada’s four main immigrant reception areas.
Immigrants make up close to 50% of Toronto’s overall population. This diversity is welcomed and celebrated, embedded in the city’s unique value proposition: Diversity Our Strength. Through the signing of the Intergrating Cities Charter, the city has reaffirmed to integrating newcomers and providing all residents with equal access to social and vocational opportunities.
Toronto Public Library (TPL)‘s active involvement added to the city’s mobilisation efforts to welcome and support Syrian refugee families, by providing pre-arrival and on-going, post-settlement support services. Toronto’s Library Settlement Partnerships (LSP) provide services for Syrian newcomers at several library locations. Between 2015 and 2018, LSP served over 900 Syrian newcomers at the Library. LSP is a long-standing collaboration between the Library and 7 local settlement agencies, funded by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.
One of the Library program’s founding principles is to provide barrier-free outreach and access to both privately-sponsored and government-assisted refugees. Overall, Library activities have reached over 2,000 refugees, positively impacting families, and supporting the immigration work of both private sponsors and government agency staff.
The Library, in partnership with the Refugee Sponsorship Training Program, also holds information sessions for potential sponsors. Participants learn about sponsorship ethics and responsibilities along with other relevant information to enhance their sponsorship efforts.
Prior to the arrival of the first Syrians in Canada, the Library published a blog post summarising its newcomer services. One refugee, who was preparing to leave for Canada, left a comment expressing how much he was looking forward to using the Library and its resources: “[N]ow we will have the best opportunity to have access that will help us integrate into our new family new home. Thanks to you all for accepting us in the big Canadian family.”
The Library delivered weekly storytime sessions in hotels, to engage refugee families where they were temporarily staying. To remove potential barriers the Library issued library cards without requiring a permanent address.
To help the community better understand the refugees’ challenges, a speaking event was hosted by the Library and the Immigrant Business Café, featuring Tareq Hadhad, a Syrian newcomer and co-founder of Peace by Chocolate. At the event, Hadhad highlighted the importance of public libraries for newcomers: “I used my public library every day to improve my language skills and to learn how to start a business.”
Currently, LSP settlement workers offer one-on-one information referrals, and programs for newcomers at 14 library locations in Toronto. By building connections between newcomers and established residents and offering a range of responsive services, Toronto Public Library system is uniquely positioned to serve newcomer populations, provide settlement services that help them integrate and create welcoming communities.