Matthew House Toronto is a charity that welcomes refugees from all over the world. We spoke with Jacky Tuinstra, Executive Director, to find out more about them.
Describe your charity/non-profit/volunteer work in a few sentences.
Matthew House Toronto welcomes refugees from all over the world. We are a nationally recognized leader in assisting and resettling newly arrived refugee claimants who would otherwise be homeless. In addition to our main reception house, we have four transition homes where particularly vulnerable residents, such as unaccompanied teens or single mothers, stay and receive longer-term support.
Since opening in 1998, Matthew House has assisted over 2,000 refugee claimants fleeing persecution. We welcome all refugees regardless of their race, religion, sexual orientation, or political opinion. Matthew House operates small homes with house parents in a family-like setting. Refugees at Matthew House know that their hope for a safe new life is one we share and that we will support them through each stage of their settlement, even after they move out.
What problem does it aim to solve?
After they arrive in Toronto, refugee claimants – also called asylum seekers – often end up in homeless shelters where they are at risk of being retraumatized. The small home environment we provide is essential for refugees – especially youth and unaccompanied minors – to flourish and develop to their full potential as new Canadians. These youth have endured trauma and violence in their homeland, and are now without parents or guardians in Canada. By living with volunteer house parents in a family-like environment, we have a special opportunity to meaningfully impact their lives.
To give you a better sense of what Matthew House Toronto is about, we invite you to view this video about how our work truly impacted one young man’s life
When did you start/join it?
I joined the Matthew House community in 2019 as Executive Director.
What made you want to get involved?
In a previous role, I was privileged to do workshops with groups of refugees. I found it very troubling that despite all the violence and difficulty refugees experienced before coming to Canada, it was still a new and especially harsh kind of loneliness to start a new life in Canada without anyone by their side to give them advice, call them on their birthday, or just care how their day was going. Social bonds are proven to be one the greatest determinants of successful settlement for newcomers to Canada and I really believe that the way we live and build community at Matthew House gives our residents the best possible start in Canada.
What was the situation like when you started?
When I started, we lived in a COVID-free world, but that changed quickly. The backlog of refugee claims that Canada had then was enormous. It has become worse with COVID. When I joined Matthew House, Canada had over 63,000 refugee claimants and the number was growing every year. With the majority of these arrivals coming to Toronto, it is overwhelming how many calls we had to turn away because we are always full.
How has it changed since?
The pandemic has impacted both our fundraising and our programming and services. All event fundraising has been put on hold or scaled back and become virtual. In response, we have increased our fundraising efforts amongst granting organizations, foundations, and individual donors.
In our programming and delivery of services, we have made a number of adjustments which include:
1) The maintenance and availability of two quarantine suites complete with a kitchenette separate from the rest of our homes. This allowed us to continue to receive refugees safely during the pandemic before they joined one of the main homes.
2) Infection control measures at all our homes.
3) Managing delivery and availability of healthy food during a positive COVID outbreak.
4) Moving one of our transition homes to a new location.
All non-essential staff are on a work-at-home plan, with settlement staff providing virtual support with socially distanced in-person support when necessary. With staff working from home we found ourselves needing second-line services for staff’s personal mobiles, reimbursing more staff data costs, and subscribing to call-forwarding services to ensure we didn’t miss a single refugee in need.
And, due to the pandemic, we were no longer able to have volunteers come and cook in the homes. We had to provide a lot more food for our resident refugees ourselves, increasing our costs.
COVID has changed life at Matthew House in a lot of ways. The main thing we always did as a community was eating together and having volunteers come to prepare and eat meals with us. That really changed the rhythm of our homes.
And, I find that refugees are staying longer at our homes during COVID. The processing of refugee claims, finding apartments, getting work permits is all slower now, making the long settlement process for refugees even longer.
What more needs to be done?
One of the services we do at Matthew House for refugees who are not our residents is the Refugee Hearing Program. This program provides claimants with the opportunity to participate in a mock hearing session led by our volunteers that replicates their actual hearing with the Immigration and Refugee Board. In doing so, the claimants can alleviate some of their stress and anxiety about the experience and familiarize themselves with the process in the proper setting. The refugee hearings with the IRB are naturally a stress-inducing experience, and when everything moved online because of COVID, these stressors were further exacerbated. Hosting mock hearings and contributing to the overall experience of vulnerable refugee groups is an important area to be promoted and further expanded.
How can our readers help?
Spread the word to #WelcomeRefugees on social media.
If you are looking for a way for your work team to have a great team-building experience, you can sign up for a “Matthew House Experience”, where one of our current or former residents will teach you a skill they know and have come to value, share a bit about their story, and talk about Matthew House and the work we do. We currently offer virtual cooking and fitness sessions.
Do you have any events coming up?
Join us for Refugee Rights Day in April and World Refugee Day in June. We are opening a new house, our fifth home, in early 2022. To get all our invites, sign up for our newsletter.
Where can we follow you?
PAY IT FORWARD: What is an awesome local charity that you love?