by Ajay Parasram

In the last week of November, #Refugees Welcome Ottawa (RWO), an ad hoc community group comprised of Ottawa folks from diverse backgrounds and experiences, organized three public events concerned with efforts to relocate tens of thousands of refugees in the coming weeks and months. These events were designed to capture a broad spectrum of interests with: an evening of lecture; an evening of story telling, music, and poetry; and an evening organized as a community meeting aimed at forming working groups for specific projects.

Organizers had many objectives for the week, including ensuring that the Ottawa community get practical, accurate information to clarify and dispel stereotypes circulating about refugees in mainstream media. We also wanted to ensure that people in a position to offer material and financial support learn where they can direct it. We sought to expand the range of political options beyond institutional and financial channels so that the community could see themselves as agents empowered and capable of making the city a welcoming space.

On Monday Nov. 23, RWO teamed up with The Leveller newspaper to host a panel discussion entitled, “The Refugee Crisis: Responsibility and Responses.”

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The jam-packed auditorium at the Main Branch of the Ottawa Public Library heard from Safiyah Rochelle, doctoral candidate in the Dept. of Law at Carleton University, talking on the subject, “Refugees, Islamophobia, and the Politics of Life and Death.” Following this presentation, Rachel Vincent, Communications Director for the Nobel Women’s Initiative presented the results of her organization’s recent fact-finding mission to Europe aimed at looking at the different kinds of gendered experience of migration and displacement in different European contexts. Professor James Milner (Carleton) followed, with a presentation putting the current crisis into a broader global context of refugee displacement and offering specific recommendations about how the Ottawa public can influence public policy on this issue. Specifically, he urged the community to become “ambassadors of rationality” in confronting the global refugee crisis, which is much larger than the current situation in Syria. Following the presentation, The Leveller, which has been covering issues of citizenship, migration, and human rights in the Ottawa area since 2009, kicked off the discussion and facilitated audience questions.

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The Q&A  was valuable, as it offered presenters the chance to: elaborate upon the broader issues relating to racism and Islamophobia; speak to the leaked announcement earlier that morning about the government’s plan to prioritize women and children in relocation efforts; and outline the multiple layers of security screening refugees go through before arriving in their new homes. The diversity of perspectives on the panel and within the audience made this a particularly exciting Monday evening.

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On Wednesday Nov. 25, RWO and Raw Sugar Café joined forces to host an event called “The Refugee Story: music, poetry, and storytelling.” While Monday’s event emphasized to the Syrian refugee situation, Wednesday’s event was about the refugee experience more broadly. There was standing room only inside, and those present heard compelling and personal stories of displacement and migration from women and men who had arrived as recently as weeks ago, to those who had arrived decades ago, to those who were born to parents who made the dangerous journey.

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Refugees told their stories, many for the first time, hailing from Burundi, Rwanda, Vietnam, Honduras, and Syria. Local artists, many of them former refugees or children of refugees, performed alongside with songs and poetry, including Haneen Al-Hassoon (aka Freedom Writer),  Baraa Arar, Denis Kashi, and  King Kimbit

After the enormous turn out for Monday and Wednesday’s events, RWO scaled up the room to a full sized gymnasium at the Bronson Centre for our Friday event, and over 250 community members filled it once again.

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The evening progressed with short interventions about making the city of Ottawa a welcoming place for refugees. Presentations came from Rana Hamedi who spoke about everyday racism in the city and what practical things people can do in their everyday life to work against racism, Hector Alfonso Almendrades, an organizer with Ottawa Sanctuary City network and No One is Illegal as well as Professor Jennifer Ridgely (Carleton) spoke about the Sanctuary City movements historically and specifically in the case of Toronto. Louisa Taylor, executive direct of Refugee 613 spoke about efforts to coordinate the push to organize material goods like clothing and furniture in the city for incoming refugees. Following the presentations, the group broke into working groups under the following banners:

  • Material support and donations
  • Sanctuary City
  • Everyday Racism
  • Private Sponsorship
  • Marches & Demonstrations

Participants interested in learning more, sharing expertise, and making plans with their fellow community members thus had space to organize with one another in their areas of interest.

The events were a roaring success, and plans are currently underway for a Community March Against Islamophobia on Dec. 13 starting at Dundonald Park.

#Refugees Welcome Ottawa will continue organizing events around the city, and continue to grow and evolve based on our membership. If you would like to join the mailing list, organizing committees, or otherwise be in touch, please check us out online:

Twitter: @RefugeesOtt

Facebook: Refugees Welcome Ottawa

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