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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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City committee votes to name Sandy Hill Park after Inuit artist Annie Pootoogook

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OTTAWA — Ottawa city councillors have voted to rename a Sandy Hill park after celebrated Inuk artist Annie Pootoogook.

The community and protective services committee approved a recommendation to rename the park at 240 Somerset Street East the “Annie Pootoogook Park.”

Pootoogook was an award-winning artist who lived in Ottawa. She died in 2016 at the age of 47 when she fell into the Rideau River. Ottawa police investigated her death, but it was ruled non-suspicious.

Stephanie Plante submitted an application to the city to commemorate Pootoogook by renaming the park after her.

Plante says she met with Veldon Coburn, the adoptive father of Pootoogook’s eight-year-old daughter, and reached out to Pootoogook’s brother in Nunavut to discuss the idea.

“Women matter, the arts matter, and most importantly Inuit people matter,” Plante told the committee.

“As of today, it’s quite possible an entirely new generation will write Annie Pootoogook Park on birthday party invitations, t-ball sign ups, dog park meet ups, soccer registration forms, summer camp locations.”

Alexandra Badzak, director of the Ottawa Art Gallery, told the community and protective services committee the arts community supports honouring Pootoogook.

“Those of us in the arts in Ottawa, across Canada and internationally know of the importance of Annie Pootoogook’s work,” said Badzak. “Who’s pen and pencil crayon drawings drew upon the legacy of her famous artistic family.”

The head of the National Gallery of Canada said Pootoogook’s artistic legacy is remembered across Canada.

“There’s absolutely no question that Annie Pootoogook is deserving of having Sandy Hill Park named in her honour,” Sasha Suda told the committee Thursday morning.

“She was an unbelievably bright light. Despite the briefness of her career, she leaves an incredibly strong legacy through her art work and in the ways that she changed the art world.”

Coun. Mathieu Fleury told the committee plans are in the works to set up an exhibit space in the Sandy Hill Community Centre to highlight Pootoogook’s work. The city is also working to set up programming for Inuit and artists in the park.

Council will vote on the proposal next week.

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City aces legal dispute over Kanata golf club

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An Ontario court judge has upheld a 40-year-old agreement that says the Kanata Lakes Golf and Country Club must remain open space and not be redeveloped into a housing community.

The decision is a big win for the city, Kanata North Coun. Jenna Sudds and her constituents, who have spent two years trying to prevent property owner ClubLink from turning the course into a 1,500-home development with its partners Minto Communities and Richcraft Homes.

Sudds, who said she burst into tears over Friday’s decision, called it “terrific news” for the community. As many as 500 homes back onto the course and more than 1,000 households use the grounds for recreation, she said.

“The green space, the golf course itself, which really is right in the middle of our community here, is used by the community quite frequently,” said Sudds, who recently moved the neighbourhood. “I see people out all hours of the day throughout the winter. It’s amazing to see all the tracks snowshoeing and skiing and dog-walking.”

40-year-old agreement ‘valid’

ClubLink, which bought the 50-year-old course in 1997, announced in December 2018 that it planned to redevelop part of the property.

Local residents, along with the newly elected councillor and the city’s own legal department, argued that the development shouldn’t go ahead due to a 1981 legal agreement between then City of Kanata and the developer. That agreement called for 40 per cent of the area in Kanata Lakes to be open space in perpetuity.

“The 1981 Agreement continues to be a valid and binding contract,” Ontario Superior Court Justice Marc Labrosse wrote in his 44-page decision.

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Ottawa residents remain pro-Trump Avenue

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It appears Donald Trump still has a home in Canada’s capital, even if he has departed Washington, D.C.

Earlier this year, residents on Trump Avenue, in Ottawa’s Central Park neighbourhood, put the possibility of changing the name of their street to a vote following the former president’s tumultuous time in office.

The neighbourhood has several streets named after icons of New York City and Trump was a famous real estate mogul before he was elected.

In order to change the name of a street, the city requires 50 per cent plus one of all households on that street to be in favour.

There are 62 houses on Trump Avenue, meaning at least 32 households would have had to vote to change the name.

The city councillor for the area, Riley Brockington, said Wednesday that 42 households voted and the neighbourhood was divided, 21 to 21. 

Without the required margin to enact the change, Brockington says the matter will not proceed any further. 

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