Romero House – creating a culture of welcome in Toronto

Submitted by Anthea Darychuk

In our culture we have a family place where we all go for big events. Romero House is like our family place in Canada” – Naman Thamir, from Iraq

People can’t really feel at peace until they know they are safe and accepted into Canada. Until they know their status. Romero House is the bridge that gets people to that safer place” Lizzie Neale, Intern at Romero House.

In a multicultural city like Toronto, one can walk down the street and find people from every country in the world, speaking dozens of different languages and celebrating hundreds of different traditions. While some families come to Canada in an organized, formal trajectory, many others are forced from their native countries by political, social and/or physical violence. Canada accepts an increasingly small amount of the world’s refugee claimants every year, and once they arrive in Canadian territory their journey is far from over. I have had the privilege of learning and walking with numerous people from all over the world as they have had to restart their lives in this country, and specifically this city. Romero House is a place where one is welcomed into a culture of tolerance. It epitomizes the very best of what local peacebuilding can accomplish, and I want to share with you some of the ways Romero House is building this culture of peace everyday in Toronto.

As an organization, Romero House has four homes which house families as they move through the refugee claimant process in Canada. Romero House grew out of the observation by founder Mary Jo Leddy that the Toronto city shelter system had no places for recently arrived family units who had managed to stay together during the ordeal of fleeing their country. The typical stay for a family at Romero House ranges from 8 months to 2 years, with much depending on their country of origin and Canadian politics of the day. Families from Mexico, Hungary, Tanzania and Eritrea –to name a few – share living spaces and form community with other residents. Romero House is a unique institution in our country, which accepts approximately 5500 refugees every year, but faces a significant lack of affordable housing options for people once they arrive here. Without the community and services provided by Romero House, newcomers to Canada are left to navigate a densely bureaucratic system in what is most times a new language (English). Interns and community members at Romero House assist residents with various settlement services, ranging from legal to medical to educational. By providing these services in the first few months of a family’s arrival in Canada, Romero House promotes a culture of reciprocity and tolerance.

Once you are part of the Romero community, you keep coming back. It is very common for families who have been in Canada awhile to reach out to newcomers in the community. This effectively creates a stronger social network for refugee families and native-born Canadians. People see that welcoming and supporting newcomers in their community makes the community itself more vibrant, interesting and resilient. Residents at Romero House learn about Canadian society in the best possible way – through hospitality and community. This is one of the quiet but durable ways that peacebuilding exists at Romero House.

Each Tuesday at Romero House, community members gather together for an afternoon of food sharing and socializing called Second Harvest. Officially it is an opportunity to hand out donated food from the local Second Harvest charity to people living in or part of the Romero House community. Rather than feeling like a food bank, however, Second Harvest at Romero House preserves dignity by not requiring ID, creates a social atmosphere by serving coffee and treats, and provides a relaxing atmosphere where people are encouraged to stick around, catch up with friends and unwind after a long day.

Recently, Romero House held a fundraiser they called Taste of Romero. This link a bit more flavor of what happened, when 7 cooks from different countries got together to hold a dinner party for forty guests at the Romero House office. The frequency of such parties is what I remember from working at Romero House, when celebrating became a way of life and a method of pushing through difficult times. One current intern, Lizzie Neale , told me how she thought that the community aspect of Romero House created a good environment to heal and enhanced social bonds between people going through incredibly demanding circumstances.  Romero House is supporting Canada’s newest citizens and doing so with a foundation of welcome spirit and inclusivity. The larger neighbourhood surrounding Romero House, in the west end of Toronto, has been impacted in many positive ways. Every summer, the community now holds a street party on Wanda Road, where the original house is situated. People from all over the area work together to design decorations, make food, organize a talent show and set up a full day of fun. The Romero House centre space is also open to any community group that wants a meeting space, and at any time one can find an art exhibition, community organizing meeting or children’s music workshop. Residents of the area have participated and supported Romero House to become the institution it is today, where peacebuilding is not the explicit goal but rather flows through the environment of welcoming and solidarity.