In the cozy confines of a small church auditorium, white sheets divide the space into makeshift dorms for men and the women with cots set up on either side. Tables and chairs are crowded together, while a space to serve meals has been set up against the side wall.
For the last four weeks, this has been the shelter for African asylum seekers at the Revivaltime Tabernacle church in North York.
“So, is that an appropriate way for human being to be housed? I would say not,” said Cari Kozierok, executive director at Ve’ahavta, a Jewish humanitarian organization in Toronto. “Do we have obligation as a society to provide them with something better that that? I would say we do.”
More than 200 refugee claimants, mainly from Africa, had been sleeping on the street outside a downtown Toronto shelter, until the community intervened.
In June, the city’s overwhelmed shelter system began referring refugee claimants to federal programs. This put the Peter Street shelter in the national spotlight as asylum seekers camped outside the facility for weeks.
According to the federal government, the responsibility of providing housing and support for asylum claimants falls to provinces and municipalities. Ottawa administers immigration and refugee policies.
While the governments were busy shifting responsibility, community members and advocates helped the refugees find shelter in two churches—Revivaltime Tabernacle and Dominion Church International. Kozierok said both churches predominantly served the African-Canadian community.
Ve’ahavta called for an emergency support campaign and on Aug. 2, volunteers arrived at the church with food donations and served cooked meals.
“What’s particularly awful about this situation is after having experienced all of the trauma from the country of origin, that they are coming from to then all of the stress and fear of travelling to a completely different county, only to have this kind of reception,” Kozierok said.
B’nai Brith Canada also delivered fresh food and clothes to the church for the refugees, donating 9,000 pounds of fresh food and 6,000 pounds of clothing, bedding, and other essentials.
Marty York, director of communications at B’nai Brith, said everyone at the human rights organization was distraught when they heard about the plight of the refugees.
“Who better that the Jewish people to understand the need for assistance,” when someone must move to an unknown land leaving everything behind and “start from scratch.”
York thanked the churches, synagogues and other groups who were helping the refugees.
Beth Tzedec Congregation and Holy Blossom Temple both made significant donations to help the church buy cots and tables, Kozierok said. Ve’ahavta, with extra volunteers and staff time, was able to take 300 meals to the church.
Ricardo Rose, a volunteer at Revivaltime Tebernacle, opened the kitchen for volunteers and said he was grateful for the help.
No one was waiting to welcome these refugees with waving flags at the airport, but they were left ignored to sleep on the streets, he said. All the refugees sheltered by the church were from Africa, mostly coming from Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Nigeria.
Churches are not equipped to provide shelter to such large numbers of people, Kozierok said, adding that she felt immense respect for the church.
“My hope is that there is a message that is coming directly from the Jewish community to the individuals staying here and to the churches who are working so hard to support them that they are not alone, that the Jewish community gets it, and we get it like no other community in some ways.”
Ve’ahavta also offers various learning and training programs. “If this is something that’s of interest, we will certainly offer all of the Ve’ahavta’s programs to the people who are staying here, the refugees, and that’s another way we can help them individually,” added Kozierok.
“It’s really important for us as a society to be thinking about when we are saying we will accept refugees, which is a wonderful thing.
“We have to also be thinking about how will we provide for them in a decent way, a dignified way.”