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Navigating the African Refugee Crisis in Toronto

In Toronto, an escalating and urgent crisis challenges the city’s inclusive reputation—the African refugee crisis. As temperatures drop, migrants and asylum seekers are forced to sleep outside, facing life-threatening conditions. Tragically, in Mississauga, on November 14, one of the migrants passed away while asleep in his tent. This crisis has exposed gaps in the Canadian government’s support, with hundreds of asylum seekers enduring harsh conditions, including pregnant women and those in need of healthcare, left to sleep on the streets, still awaiting a roof, due to limited shelter capacity and funding. This article draws on the insights of Kizito Musabimana, Founder and Executive Director of the Rwandan Canadian Healing Centre, and his insights as he navigates the distressing circumstances within Toronto’s Black community housing sector. 

Advocacy and Action: The Rwandan Canadian Healing Centre 
The Rwandan Canadian Healing Centre (RCHC) primarily provides mental health supports and resources, with a particular focus on individuals affected by PTSD and trauma. In addition to this critical work, the Center is also pioneering a new affordable housing initiative known as the African Canadian Affordable Housing Village model. RCHC is now also extending its support to meet the pressing needs of Toronto’s African refugee crisis.  

Located across from Streets to Homes Assessment and Referral Centre (129 Peter Street), where the city has directed refugees, RCHC has witnessed a steady increase in African refugee numbers. Musabimana recollects the situation, “One day you saw three people. The next day you saw five, and then it grew to a dozen. Within a short time, we had about 30 or 40 people outside our office. Even with the drop in temperatures, asylum seekers are still left without shelter, forced to sleep outside.” Confronted by this escalating crisis, RCHC took immediate action, mobilizing the community to seek assistance in matters related to immigration, shelter, and vital necessities. 

Navigating Challenges  
The crisis in Toronto presents a multitude of challenges, demanding immediate solutions and long-term resilience. Its scale is evident as the number of homeless refugees surpasses available shelter capacity. Community leaders and churches have provided makeshift housing, but the crisis extends beyond shelter shortages, becoming even more urgent as winter sets in. 

Despite the federal governments announcement of $97 million, these funds are primarily intended for reimbursement rather than tackling the ongoing crisis, leaving vulnerable refugees without adequate support. Concerns persist regarding the city’s disbursement of funds, particularly to crucial entities like Dominion Church and Pilgrim Feast, prompting questions about transparency and fairness in the distribution process. The allocation method, granting groups 34% of their eligibility, is only a fraction of the funds needed by churches and community groups. This raises eyebrows and intensifies calls for a more equitable approach to fund distribution.  

The government’s recent announcement of a 700-bed regional reception centre in Peel is a positive step in response to ongoing advocacy efforts. However, despite this notable endeavour, it is exclusively reserved for individuals currently in Peel, potentially leaving other groups, like those housed in Dominion, Pilgrim, the Ugandan Muslim Association, and Eastern Church, without access. Without sufficient financial support, the sustainability of these churches and community-led initiatives remains uncertain.  

Frontline workers, who volunteer their time, also face formidable challenges while navigating government agencies. Bureaucratic constraints within the system lead to a convoluted process, resulting in delays that stretch for weeks or even months. Musabimana explains that these delays are not a reflection of city officials’ goodwill but rather an issue with the system itself. In 2023, the current system lacks the agility necessary to address a crisis of this magnitude with the urgency it demands. While significant funds have been allocated to various causes, such as the Ukrainian crisis, the plight of the African asylum seekers seems to be hindered by systematic complexities.

Community-Led Response and Resilience 
Among these challenges, the community, along with several organizations such as RCHC, the African Centre for Refugees, and the Black Community Housing Advisory Table, have united to provide immediate assistance. On July 14th, community members organized a press conference to raise awareness and appeal to all levels of government, emphasizing the indispensable role of nonprofits and community action when government resources are stretched thin.  

During this time, Revivaltime Tabernacle quickly transformed into a shelter, thanks to the assistance of community members, to accommodate the increasing number of people seeking refuge. The unwavering dedication of community members, and other churches such as Dominion Church, Pilgrim Feast Tabernacle, and the Uganda Muslim Association of Canada (UMAC), just in Toronto alone, have played a pivotal role in bridging the support gap for African refugees.  

This week, a meeting led by RCHC and CEE Centre for Young Black Professionals marks a critical juncture in the community’s response. Discussions centered on developing a strategic plan, not just for immediate relief but to also navigate the complexities of long-term challenges. The envisioned report aims to serve as a road map for governmental bodies, illustrating the substantial efforts by Black community agencies, the financial burdens they’ve shouldered, and the necessity for prompt reimbursement. 

Throughout the crisis, the unity and support within Toronto’s Black communities has proven instrumental, as they harnessed their network of organizations and community leaders. This collaborative response highlights the importance of continued cooperation in the pursuit of long-term self-sufficiency. Musabimana believes the establishment of a formal network of allies would not only empower Black communities to sustain their resilience but also prepare them for future challenges, ensuring a sustainable and less vulnerable future for both the current and upcoming generations of Black Canadians. 

Uniting for Change and the Urgent Call to Action 
Despite systemic shortcomings and bureaucratic complexities, community leaders and organizations like the RCHC have stepped up to provide critical support. Toronto’s African refugee crisis is a stark reminder of the governments responsibilities in ensuring the well-being of vulnerable populations, and the fundamental belief that every individual deserves a dignified and secure existence. 

The recent passing of the asylum seeker tragically underscores the current urgency of the crisis. Dominion Church will host a fundraiser on December 15th to garner support for community organizations. Find more information here: Additionally, if you can contribute in any way possible by connecting or visiting one of the locations (churches/mosques) currently providing refuge for asylum seekers and migrants. Details here: Your support can make a significant difference in alleviating the immediate hardships faced by these vulnerable individuals and families. Together, we can turn stories of resilience into a collective narrative of empowerment and lasting change. 

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