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Opinion: Neighbourhood houses are where newcomer refugees can belong and call home

Neighbourhood houses have stepped up to help refugees get vital support and feel connected to their new communities. Here's what they do.
Ghfran Alkour and her family came to Canada from Syria as refugees. With help from the staff, volunteers, and partner organizations from Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood House they received essential support services and a sense of community.

When you walk through the doors of a neighbourhood house you are met with a buzz of action and activity, hear the sounds of a lively diverse community, smell the welcoming warm spices of communal meals, and have a sense that you belong.

Neighbourhood houses are special places throughout the Lower Mainland, where neighbours create a welcoming, safe and comfortable space for all members of the community. They are especially important to newcomers. 

In January 2016, Ghfran Alkour arrived in Canada with her husband and their six children after leaving their home in Darraa, Syria as refugees. Coming by way of Jordan, Ghfran and her children—who ranged in age from infant to late teens ages one to 17—arrived in Vancouver without familial ties, English fluency, or connections to community. 

“Everything was very new to us and looked scary as we didn't know much about the country and we didn't have relatives here to help us,” shares Ghfran. “None of us spoke English so we didn't know how to communicate with others and ask for assistance if we needed help.”

Ghfran Alkour's daughter in Vancouver.  Photo courtesy Association of Neighbourhood Houses

Soon after Ghfran arrived in Vancouver, she was connected to Sherifa Azaab, a Settlement Worker at Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood House.

Sherifa and her colleagues assist newcomers to settle into their communities by providing direct services of information, referrals, advocacy and orientation for families through the process of settlement. They also provide a welcoming and supportive presence in a time of intense uncertainty. According to Ghfran, Sherifa’s most important role of all was the deep connections she helped the family make to their new neighbourhood.

“Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood House was the first place my family and I went to when we faced challenges, and even now after living here for five years, it still plays a key role in our life,” says Ghfran. 

For decades, neighbourhood houses across Metro Vancouver have been welcoming and comfortable spaces where all members of the community can take part in programs and develop deep connections with their neighbours. Everyone from youth to seniors, newcomers like Ghfran, to long-time residents can find a sense of belonging at their local neighbourhood house.

During the Syrian refugee crisis, neighbourhood houses responded by working together with volunteers, staff and partner organizations to ensure the families arriving were not only met with services they needed (translation, childcare, food, etc.), but also with a strong sense of connection within their new community. 

“Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood House was home to us especially when we first arrived, not knowing anyone or speaking English. Sherifa and the Neighbourhood House made our lives here so much easier and helped us to feel that we belong to this community,” shares Ghfran.

“MPNH has helped us overcome many challenges, to build our future here, which I will forever be grateful for. Three of my children are in university now, my older daughter received a scholarship to study at UBC and follow her dreams of becoming a doctor. As for me, despite all the responsibilities I had particularly due to having a big family to take care of, I overcame these challenges and found a job as a teacher, which is in the same field I used to work in back in my home country.”

Now, as Canadians are beginning to welcome Ukrainian refugees, neighbourhood houses are once again stepping up and doing what they do best, responding to the specific needs of people joining the community. Neighbourhood houses are uniquely well suited to welcome and support newcomers because their programs are created by and for the community—the very definition of grassroots support. But neighbourhood houses do more than just meet people’s basic needs: they provide opportunities for connection and growth which is so deeply needed in this moment of time. If we’ve learned anything over the past two years of the pandemic, it’s that we need each other. By coming together, we can learn, grow and thrive.  

To learn more about neighbourhood houses or to get involved visit the Association of Neighbourhood Houses BC website.

Jenna Otto-Wray is the Communications & Outreach Coordinator for Neighbourhood Small Grants & ANHBC