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Growing number of refugees arriving in Canada as unaccompanied minors

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With a suitcase no bigger than a carry-on filled with what she describes as “tropical clothes,” Elisée Makola says she fled to Canada for safety.

Makola was just 15 when she left Congo, a country wracked by decades of violent conflict that has killed millions of civilians and displaced millions more. Children have been forced into prostitution, slave labour and military service for rebel groups, and she feared for her future.

“Mostly it was just being persecuted, being killed — because I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it. So I was like, if there was a chance of me escaping that, I will take that chance.”

Refugees arriving in Canada as unaccompanied minors face the dual challenge of adapting to their new environment while also being children missing their parents.

Makola says she was separated from her family amid the unrest and violence in her country. She fled to neighbouring Zambia and from there made her way to Canada.

She landed at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport alone — a 17-year-old refugee claimant.

Growing problem

Longtime refugee advocate Anne Woolger says this is a relatively recent problem.

“I don’t remember seeing them back 30 years ago, period,” she said.

Now, she says, “some of them are coming … 15-, 16-,17-year-olds by themselves with no parents.”

They were coming from the same country, with same stories of persecution, torture, really heartbreaking.– Anne  Woolger , founder of Matthew House

According the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, in 2016 Canada received 287 refugee claimants who were unaccompanied minors (under the age of 18 and without a legal guardian). In 2017, that number increased to 492. (There is no reliable data available for previous years.)

Most refugees arrive in Canada under sponsorship by government or private individuals, with a whole set of supports in place starting when they are greeted at the airport. They can get help finding housing, money for food, and guidance on adjusting to life in Canada. But the system isn’t set up to help those who arrive at the border unannounced. They have no one to greet them and nowhere to stay. Many end up on the street, helpless, Woolger says.

Matthew House founder Anne Woolger has been helping unaccompanied youth adjust to life alone in a new country by providing them with shelter, guidance and other resources. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

“They were coming from the same country, with same stories of persecution, torture, really heartbreaking… [then] they were literally numbered among the homeless,” Woolger said. 

That idea of leaving such vulnerable people to potential danger and exploitation led Woolger to found Matthew House in Toronto.  

The home, run entirely by a network of volunteers, provides claimants a chance at a fresh start in a loving environment, Woolger says.

“[What] we want to do is create a safe home, a safe place where they could have a deep sense of belonging and a deep sense of community and just kind of like a real family.”

Access to shelter, resources

Since the first Matthew House opened in 1998, it has expanded to three houses in Toronto’s downtown.

Two of the homes are able to accommodate unaccompanied minors. Depending on how the rooms are arranged, they can take in anywhere between 12 and 14 refugee claimants.

Minors are provided a room in a fully furnished house where they can stay until they are ready to go off on their own.

Lawyers are available to help claimants prepare for their refugee hearings; they even hold mock trials, with translators provided if necessary.

If Matthew House was not there, it could be super hard for me to get where I am right now.– Khalid Sadiqi , former Matthew House resident

They also have guidance from what Woolger refers to as “house parents” — one or two volunteers who live in the home at any given time.

“They’re not telling them what to do, but they’re being resources for them, kind of helping to steer them in wise directions.”

Paul Zurbrigg is a longtime volunteer and fill-in ‘house parent’ at Matthew House. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

It’s something they might not otherwise get as asylum-seekers, says longtime volunteer and fill-in house parent Paul Zurbrigg.

“Some night it might be sitting helping a kid with biology homework. Some night it might be talking over an issue that’s happening in somebody’s life. Some night it might be watching a movie together or playing PlayStation. It’s just hanging with these kids.”

The retired teacher of 31 years knows connecting with the kids is key and has seen the difference Matthew House is making in their lives.

“Now they are going on to higher education, they are contributing members of society,” Zurbrigg says.

‘It was not safe’

Matthew House and its residents are the only family that Khalid Sadiqi has known for the past three years.  

Sadiqi says he was 17 when he left Afghanistan in 2015, as the Taliban began to make significant territorial gains across the country.

“For a guy like me back home in Afghanistan, in Kabul,” he says, “it was not safe to stay there at all.”  

Sadiqi says he flew to the U.S., then took a bus from New York City to Buffalo and walked across the Rainbow Bridge in Niagara Falls into Canada.

As the youngest of eight, Sadiqi says it was a tough decision to leave.

“It can be so challenging getting out from your country. It can be your language, the culture, how people live…. If Matthew House was not there, it could be super hard for me to get where I am right now.”

Now 20, Sadiqi has graduated high school, secured a full-time job at a restaurant and has plans to go back to study technology in college. He’s also transitioned out of Matthew House into an apartment with roommates.  

Khalid Sadiqi came to Canada from Afghanistan when he was 17. He considers the residents at Matthew House family. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The years without his family have been difficult, but the shared experience with people he met at Matthew House help fill the emptiness he sometimes feels, he says.

“It’s something like kind of you’re related. Like, back home you would visit your cousins’ place. Here, it feels like you have someone to visit, and that’s a great thing,” he said.

Woolger says Matthew House has built a support network over time.

“Over the years more and more Canadians have been volunteering with us and getting involved…. Sometimes we can even send someone temporarily to someone’s house … so there is kind of a growing network.”

The chores board at Matthew House. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Woolger says she doesn’t like to turn people away. “Whenever possible, we have an extra sofa bed in our main shelter where anyone that comes to our door that is desperate uses.”

When Makola arrived from Congo, there wasn’t room for her at Matthew House. If Woolger hadn’t cleared out the office space for her, Makola would have had to spend a third night in detention.

Makola, now 23, studies construction engineering technology at George Brown College in Toronto. She says the security and support Matthew House provided her has given her a chance she otherwise wouldn’t have had.

“I think I was in a dark place and then I see a light, a little bit of light — and that was Matthew house.”

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Students call on University of Ottawa to implement pass/fail grading amid pandemic

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OTTAWA — The University of Ottawa Students’ Union (UOSU) is calling on the university to introduce optional, one-course-only pass/fail grading for the Fall 2020 and Winter 2021 semesters amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The students’ union said nearly 5,000 uOttawa students have signed its petition supporting the grading system.

In a letter to the university, the UOSU said it is asking the school to make changes to the grading structure, including allowing one course per semester to be converted to the “pass” or “satisfactory” designation.

The UOSU also made recommendations regarding a reduction of workload and course delivery.

“The adaptation to online learning during the pandemic for students has created unique challenges and disruptions that could not have been anticipated,” wrote Tim Gulliver, the UOSU’s Advocacy Commissioner. 

“The use of flexible compassionate grading options has been introduced in other universities, such as Carleton University which includes a use of Pass/Fail which we feel could be implemented at the University of Ottawa.”

Carleton University approved the use of flexible and compassionate grading for the Fall 2020 and Winter 2021 terms in early November.

The UOSU also called for all grades that constitute a fail to appear as “Not Satisfactory” on their transcript, which would not be included in grade point average calculations. 

The union represents more than 38,000 undergraduate students at the University of Ottawa.

In a response to CTV News, the University of Ottawa said it is aware of the petition.

“Last spring a decision was made by the (University) Senate to allow the Satisfactory/Non Satisfactory mark to be used, given the unique circumstances of the pandemic, which hit us close to the end of the Winter 2020 semester. The University is aware of the petition and is looking into the matter.”

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OPP warn of phone scams in Ottawa Valley

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Upper Ottawa Valley OPP warn residents of a phone scam that’s been making its way through the region recently. 

Police say a scammer pretends to be from a local business and tells the person their credit card didn’t work on a recent purchase before asking the person on the phone to confirm their credit card number. 

The victim may not have even used the card at the store, but police said the scammer creates a sense of urgency. 

Police remind residents to verify the legitimacy of any caller before providing any personal information over the phone. 

Similar scams have been reported recently in the region, according to police, with scammers posing as police officers, Revenue Canada or other government agencies demanding payment for a variety of reasons. A Social Insurance Number scam has also been reported recently, where a victim is asked for their SIN number under threat of being arrested. 
 
If a scam artist contacts you or if you have been defrauded, you’re asked to contact police or the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre at 1-888-495-8501 or visit their website at www.antifraudcentre.ca.

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The human history of Ottawa Valley is thousands of years old. Archeologists may have found a piece of it on Parliament Hill

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OTTAWA—Archeologists working on Parliament Hill have discovered a relic of Indigenous life that one Algonquin leader sees as a symbol of his people’s long history in what is now the heart of Canadian political power.

The jagged stone point was unearthed last year on the east side of Centre Block, but its discovery was not publicized as officials worked with Algonquin communities to authenticate the object, the Star has learned.

Stephen Jarrett, the lead archeologist for the ongoing renovation of Parliament’s Centre Block, said this week that while such an object is “not an uncommon find,” the stone point joins just a small handful of Indigenous artifacts ever discovered on Parliament Hill.

“It’s about the size of my palm, and it could be used as a knife or a projectile,” Jarrett said this week in response to inquiries from the Star.

He said the point is made of chert, a type of sedimentary stone most often used for implements of this type. And while the point was unearthed in what Jarrett calls “disturbed soil” — earth that has been dug up and moved, most likely during construction of Parliament — the soil it was in “is natural to the site.”

That means “it came from a source nearby, but finding exactly where it came from is impossible,” Jarrett said.

For Douglas Odjick, a band council member responsible for education and culture with the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg, this artifact of “an original world” is a testament to the longevity of his Algonquin nation in an area they still claim as unceded and unsurrendered territory. Based on the assessment of Ian Badgley, the top archeologist with the National Capital Commission, Odjick said the stone point is likely 4,000 years old and dates to a time when the confluence of the Ottawa, Gatineau and Rideau Rivers — along with all their tributaries that stretch out into the surrounding area — served as a great hub of regional trade activity.

“It symbolizes who we are and how long we’ve been here,” Odjick said, comparing the area to an ancient version of a busy hub like New York’s busy Grand Central Station.

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