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Charities are critical safety nets for refugee communities during COVID-19

Staff at House of Omeed preparing and delivering food baskets

Moving to a new country can be challenging in the best of times but during a pandemic, it can be even harder. House of Omeed, a charity in Burnaby, has been on the frontlines of immigrant and refugee settlement since 2016 — and now they’re on the frontlines of COVID-19 too.

Based on a relationship-first approach, House of Omeed supports Arab and Persian newcomers as they create a new life in Canada. This includes offering supports such as finding affordable housing, filing tax returns, and providing access to seminars and classes on topics like banking, conversational English, and Microsoft Office.

Everything changed when the pandemic began. 

“We have a relationship with the people and families we support,” said Ahmad Zeividavi, Executive Director of House of Omeed. “Our phones were ringing with distressed calls. We’re a new and small organization but we knew we had to do something.”

More than 60 per cent of the people they serve earn a living in the restaurant industry, which has been hit hard by the pandemic. Many were out of work and in some cases, ineligible to receive government support. Self-advocacy for access to government support is also challenging for some refugee claimants who fear that doing so could negatively affect their case. 

Additionally, some families who had just come to Canada during the pandemic were required to quarantine upon arrival. For families in that situation, it meant they were not able to go to grocery stores — and for some without extended family or friends to help, it meant they couldn’t get any groceries at all.

It became clear that one of the most urgent and pressing needs for this community was food security.

With a grant from the Community Response Fund and the generous support of other organizations and churches in their community like the Coquitlam Alliance Church, House of Omeed set up a biweekly food basket delivery program. The baskets provide more than 130 families with groceries and foods that cater to the community’s religious and cultural needs. 

The next urgent need was educational support for children once schools closed. House of Omeed called on a volunteer with extensive experience in the BC educational system and in homeschooling to produce two videos a week to teach families how to homeschool their children.

Despite the support they’ve received so far, the future of House of Omeed remains uncertain. Most of their fundraising comes from donations at local churches but with in-person services cancelled, they had no choice but to put their fundraising on hold. Meanwhile, their existing budget was redirected to support families through the pandemic. Mounting operating costs and emerging needs in the community like mental health support has become overwhelming. 

Their situation is not uncommon. A recent report on the impacts of COVID-19 on BC non-profits found that 23% of charities feel they may not last another six months. What this ultimately means is that the families — like those that rely on charities like House of Omeed —are at risk of falling through the cracks.

“Small charities like us don’t have the infrastructure to organize online fundraising; we don’t have enough staff to do the work,” said Zeividavi. “And even though there’s a lot of stress in our community and many have given up everything to come to Canada, they still want to help each other and have a lot to offer.”

BC’s recovery is at risk if charities like House of Omeed aren’t there to support British Columbians when they need it most.

Vancouver Foundation is proud to support a diverse group of charities supporting immigrant and refugee communities through the Community Response Fund. This includes organizations such as Ni Wakati African Women’s Health Services Society, Vancouver and Lower Mainland Multicultural Family Support Services Society, Umoja Operation Compassion Society, Rainbow Refugee Society, Kinbrace Community Society, and Nisa Foundation.

Please consider making a donation directly to the House of Omeed to ensure these vital services can continue. 


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