A group of people are lined up around a table of food, helping themselves. The perspective is from behind so you cannot see people's faces but it is a diverse group of women with different hair colours and styles wearing a variety of shirts and outfits.
CCSYR held a meet-and-greet information session in April, where current refugees could meet the peer leaders and list the various sectors and regions where they are looking for work. (Photo by Fernando Arce, courtesy of the Catholic Community Services of York Region)

Topics: Justice | Human Rights, Society

How former asylum seekers are helping current ones navigate Canada’s bureaucratic maze

The Catholic Community Services of York Region’s new Asylum Claimant Program is already showing signs of success. But more political will and economic support is needed to scale it into a national model.


It was after 11 p.m. in September 2023 when pastor Kofi Danso found Martina Mutunga walking alone in the dark, away from the Miracle for All Nations Church in Vaughan, O.N. Miracle for All Nations was one of the many churches that had opened their doors to temporarily house African asylum seekers while the City of Toronto wrestled with the federal government for more money to open additional shelter spaces for the influx of claimants.

Mutunga, originally from Kenya, had made her way to Vaughan after sleeping outside a frequently over-capacity shelter in downtown Toronto for a few nights. She heard that there might be some space at the church, but it was also full.

The pastor drove her to the only space that was available at the time: the inside of a bus set up outside Miracle for All Nations. When she arrived, a few social workers offered her coffee, a place to shower, and blankets for the cold night ahead. She spent two weeks there before a room finally became available at a nearby hotel.

According to data from the federal government, Canada processed 143,770 asylum claimants like Mutunga last year. As of February, Toronto was housing as many as 6,000 of those claimants who, according to Mayor Olivia Chow, account for more than half of the city’s shelter population.

Today, even though her refugee claim is still being processed, Mutunga is one of six peer leaders helping new asylum seekers avoid a similar fate as part of the Catholic Community Services of York Region’s (CCSYR) Asylum Claimant Program.

“This [experience] really [gave] me the heart to help and work with the asylum seekers, especially the ones who are looking for housing,” she says, adding that without work permits, many of them are forced to rely on social assistance to survive. For context, Ontario Works offers a single person with no children a maximum of $733 for basic needs and shelter. A couple with two dependent minor children will receive a maximum of $1136.

The program, which began in February with a $170,000 grant from the Ministry of Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development, connects a core team of peers with lived experience with those currently navigating the application system. Through one-on-one and group sessions—offered in multiple languages—they help new applicants access vital services like housing, employment and mental health providers. CCSYR also hosts activities like job fairs and employment etiquette workshops.

Lydia Udjor, a former personal support worker originally from Kenya, is the program’s community navigator. She remembers how helpful it was to have a settlement officer that encouraged her to continue studying when she first arrived in Canada. That conversation pushed her not only to finish her studies, but also to volunteer in as many Catholic Community Service of York Region’s centres as she could.

Udjor speaks Igbo, Urhobo, Yoruba and Hausa, and is often the first points of contact for new asylum seekers. Since she started volunteering, she has seen several people break down in front of her, unwilling to communicate due to trauma or trust issues. She says that being able to assist them in their mother tongue is a critical part of the program because it helps establish trust with claimants from the start.

“I let them know that I’m here — at every step, I’m here,” she says.

In April, CCSYR held a meet-and-greet information session, where current refugees could meet the peer leaders and list the various sectors and regions where they are looking for work. Leonilda Patey, the agency’s executive director, says the peer leaders can now use that information to target potential employers in the community where newcomers are hoping to resettle in.

So far, 15 people have been housed through the program, and at least 10 others have secured work permits and are on their way to finding jobs. Peer leaders are now also reaching shelters in York, Toronto and Peel, with working connections in Wiarton and Simcoe.

In the absence of a national program, other settlement organizations and civic groups have also stepped up to help newcomers. But the CCSYR’s unique focus on hiring people with lived experience allows them to build rapport with people who are often weary of authority figures, given the situations they have escaped.

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While the initial funding is only for 12 months, Patey says the aim is to evaluate which parts of the program are working best and whether they can be scaled up to a provincial or national level.

Beyond providing intermittent funding to similar projects, however, the federal government has shown little interest in implementing a national strategy.

Part of the issue, according to advocacy groups, including the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR), is that unlike refugees whose claims have been approved overseas, those who seek protection after arriving in Canada are labelled as a “crisis” by the government, whose approach is to bus them to hotels with no support services. By contrast, United Nations pre-approved refugees are offered information, services and logistical support to help them find housing, work and community. The CCR is currently advocating for a similar welcome system for asylum seekers.

Their five-point plan includes recommendations similar to what the peer leaders have proposed, including establishing reception centres in main cities that serve as hubs for all incoming asylum seekers, and providing funding to scale up the network of 35 shelters across the country that offer emergency short-term and transitional housing for refugee claimants. According to the CCR, these run at a fraction of the cost of hotels or homeless shelters, but are much better suited to claimants’ needs.

The CCR’s other recommendations include allowing existing organizations to offer services to refugee claimants (which many of them cannot lawfully do), ensuring adequate legal aid, and
simplifying the claims process by making it faster and available in the language of the claimant.

While the CCR acknowledges that over 70 percent of people seeking refuge are eventually accepted, the heavily bureaucratic process can take more than two years, during which little support is offered.

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While increasing in order to meet the growing demand is crucial, Patey says it’s also important to look at raising social assistance rates and implementing a living wage.

“I started my career some 30-odd years ago, and worked really hard with my peers in Peel to open two permanent shelters,” she says. “And now I can say to you that those shelters weren’t the answer. The answer is we need to advocate more to put money into people’s pockets.”

That’s something all peer leaders agree with.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a refugee, or just someone coming in as a permanent resident — a human is a human,” says Nirmala Ramlall, one of the peer leaders. “Take into consideration that we all have needs: we have friends and family we have left behind, and we’re coming for a new beginning.”


Fernando Arce is a Toronto-based freelance journalist focusing on social issues, local politics and Indigenous resistance to colonization. He is a co-founder and senior editor of The Grind, a free print news and arts publication. He’s also an amateur photographer, an okay drummer, and a lifelong animal-lover.

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