Newcomers to Canada—especially those with precarious immigration status, many of whom already lived in a state of economic uncertainty—have been hard-hit by the economic impacts of COVID-19. Indeed, according to a recent study by the Labour Market Information Council, a non-profit research institute, “the rate of job loss among immigrants far surpasses that of Canadian-born – and has been slower to recover.”

Meanwhile, immigrant-serving organizations that would typically provide services and essential supports to these individuals have also suffered. These often small, community-based organizations have faced increased demands even as they’ve endured financial hardship themselves. Many have sought to pivot to provide services virtually, but have often lacked the resources to do so successfully.

Philanthropy can address both needs by giving to local organizations which can then help those in need. In May 2020, the WES Mariam Assefa Fund was launched in Canada. The Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI) received the Fund’s first Canadian grants. The council was able to distribute funds to member organizations which, in turn, used the monies to offer direct assistance to immigrants and refugees affected by COVID-19. The OCASI grants were provided to support those not eligible to receive government aid, such as Employment Insurance (EI) or the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).

FCJ Refugee Centre, one of OCASI’s member agencies, works closely with immigrants as well as refugees with precarious immigration status. FCJ helps clients access health care and employment and, in general, to settle into their new communities. The organization also manages any labour issues its clients have and reports these issues as needed. Through community outreach, FCJ helps people find the right sources of support and information, and advocates on behalf of those who are exploited.

The pandemic has strained the organization’s ability to respond.

“When COVID-19 hit, people started calling us more and more because they were losing their jobs,” said Loly Rico, FCJ’s executive director. “Emergency funds were not available to everyone—not everyone had access to federal benefits or unemployment insurance, because of their immigration status.” With funding from OCASI, FCJ was able to help, providing more than 40 families with immediate relief for rent and secure housing—oftentimes preventing eviction—and critical emergency food assistance.

Another member organization, Niagara Folk Arts Multicultural Centre in St. Catharines, Ontario, had to shift many of its services online, even as it fielded increased requests for support. The funds from OCASI expanded the centre’s capacity to support this change and provided emergency relief to more than 80 individuals who had lost their jobs because of COVID-19.

OCASI also used part of the Fund’s donation to support the operating capacity of 12 small community-based agencies that serve overlooked groups, particularly women.

“The agencies we selected do not have the kinds of financial resources needed to support the additional pressures placed by managing an organization virtually due to the pandemic,” said Martha Orellana, senior coordinator of policy and membership at OCASI. “Most of them have been in existence for many years and were originally formed by small groups of individuals responding to a need in their community.”

Since March, OCASI has been a leader among those calling for extending all government benefits and services to all residents, regardless of immigration status. The council continues to prioritize this issue in hopes that immigrants will be able to access the relief they need to get through the crisis.

“We are particularly concerned about the disproportionate impact on racialized people with precarious immigration status, especially women,” Orellana said. “OCASI raised these concerns with the federal government and has specifically called for the inclusion of all migrant workers, international students, and all residents, regardless of immigration status.”

While COVID-19 has exposed and exacerbated the hardships confronting certain immigrant communities, the efforts of OCASI and community-based organizations have filled critical gaps in essential services that enable immigrants and refugees to live with greater stability and support. Learn more about OCASI’s work here.

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Thank you for your interest in the WES Mariam Assefa Fund. We’ll share updates on the Fund’s efforts, what we’re learning, and opportunities through our email list.