The year after I started, we established what is now called the Ralph Chiodo Family Immigrant Reception Centre, a home for newly arrived refugees. Over the years, more than 30,000 refugees have made COSTI their first home in Canada. I will always remember Helen Odeesho commenting to me that having a clean towel, soap, and shampoo and clean bedsheets meant that someone cared – a breast cancer survivor, she understood the meaning of second chances and was grateful that Canada welcomed her and her family without hesitation.
Toronto has become the major destination for refugees coming to Canada, placing COSTI in a leadership position in resettling government-sponsored refugees. Over the years we have responded effectively when special cohorts of refugees arrived in the city with little notice. In 1998 we welcomed Cuban political refugees; in 2000 we resettled Kosovars; and in 2016 we resettled 2,200 Syrian refugees, and today we are working with over 800 Afghan refugees as part of a major initiative to resettle 40,000 in Canada. Each opportunity to help our clients has provided valuable experience in establishing a program that builds on success. Today our refugee services employ 220 staff, many of them former refugees themselves.
COSTI’s role and support to newcomers and people seeking support has expanded and continues to expand today based on the challenges and needs of our community. With five full-service employment centres in Toronto, the Region of Peel and York Region, our Employment Services team has developed specialized initiatives to help internationally trained professionals, people on social assistance and youth.
Our Family and Mental Health Services Centre has distinguished itself within the settlement sector by providing seminars at professional development conferences and training counsellors in the settlement and employment services sector in the areas of domestic violence, addiction counselling, and delivering culturally sensitive and language-appropriate mental health services. As the pandemic continued throughout 2020/21, their expertise was in high demand, as many organizations tried to address their clients’ mental health and addiction issues as a result of the social isolation and lack of engagement.
Delivering culturally sensitive services is key to our mandate. An example is of an older Italian woman who was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and on anti-psychotic medication when she was referred to COSTI. She was wearing all black clothing. The counsellor recognized that she was in mourning (an Italian tradition that indicates loss). When asked, she indicated that her son had recently died of cancer. She was ashamed to even say that. Through counselling she shared that her son did not die of cancer but in fact had AIDS. Although she suspected her son was gay, she did not talk about it. Her diagnosis was changed to depression and her medication changed as well. She was referred to a support group for Italian women and within two months, her depression began to lift and she began to re-engage with friends and family.
While our psychiatric services were originally limited to individuals with Italian, Portuguese and Hispanic heritage, over the last five years, our psychiatry and mental health services expanded services to directly support COSTI’s refugee clients, as more and more were arriving struggling with physical and mental health issues. Currently, in addition to the above languages, mental health services are offered in Arabic, Farsi, French, Hindi, Malayalam, Swahili and Urdu. Overall, COSTI staff speak 68 different languages.
For the longest time, English language classes were offered at COSTI by local school boards. While this valuable service continues, COSTI now offers its own classes to over 600 students, from literacy to advanced. In addition, we offer programs with occupation-specific terminology with employment support, digital literacy training, and language training in the workplace.
Partnerships are key to COSTI’s continuous evolvement. The establishment of the Seniors Day Program for individuals with mild dementia, in partnership with the Calabrian Benevolent Association of Ontario has proven to be extremely successful and continued to offer services virtually throughout the year. This program has been keeping seniors active through programming that slows the progress of the dementia. A major research initiative has been funded to compare the efficacy of this approach with other interventions.
In 2005, we partnered with four other organizations to plan out a systemic approach to settlement services in York Region. By 2007 we established the first of five Welcome Centres as integrated service hubs for the region. The model has been successful and has been replicated in Germany.
Most of this work has continued over the past year in spite of the pandemic. Refugee hostel services have continued in-person with appropriate PPE precautions. All other services have been provided remotely. Fortunately, we had the technology to move to remote work fairly smoothly. However, the pandemic has resulted in a reduction in services by a third from pre-pandemic levels. Some of our employment clients have been reluctant to engage in services even when access was available online as they feared working under pandemic conditions. More recently, the positive impact that vaccinations and safety protocols have had on community spread has enabled us to begin providing controlled in-person services. This will progress as public health guidelines allow.
The future is always uncertain but one can provide a measure of control with good planning. The Board and Leadership Team understand that change is important if we are to increase our capacity to serve the community. Together, we have worked diligently over the past year to create a Strategic Plan for the next five years that will help lead and guide the organization into the future. I am excited for the future of COSTI and know that we will continue to guide and support anyone that comes to us for help.
COSTI is a collective creation. Everyone that has walked through our doors as an employee, volunteer or donor has contributed to the success of our clients and the growth of the organization. The guidance and support received from current and past members of the Board and the compassionate and competent services delivered by staff, are what has sustained COSTI through the years and will continue to do so for many years to come.
When I started in 1987 I had no idea that I would be in the same job for this long but the dynamism of this organization and its impact on the lives of newcomers kept me engaged and continues to inspire me today.