First Contact program assists refugees and newcomers in Ontario and Vancouver

Topics: National, Migrant and Refugee Services
June 19, 2014

Hassan Moghaddas Nejad, Canadian Red Cross First Contact program beneficiary He’s almost always wearing an easy smile. But it fades momentarily when Hassan Moghaddas Nejad recalls his arrival at Toronto’s Lester B. Pearson Airport in 2007 and describes the nervousness he felt that August night.

Hassan arrived in Canada as a refugee claimant, one of nearly 240,000 that year. When he spoke to Canadian Border Services agents, he says, “I told them that my life was in danger and I need protection.” Within Canada itself, 43 per cent of all new immigrants to Canada settle in the Greater Toronto Area.

It was the middle of the summer in Toronto when Hassan arrived from Tehran, Iran. He says the story of how he left Iran is one full of sadness and he would rather talk about his “life in Canada” as he calls it.

Unlike some refugee claimants who may arrive from a warm climate to be plunged into a cold Canadian winter, Hassan says the weather in Toronto was truly a warm welcome. “I felt like I was in Tehran,” he says, of the heat that night. “This made me feel more at home, and I felt like I could handle any situation.”

Before he left the airport, a Canadian Border Services agent handed Hassan a card. “It had the red cross on it,” Hassan says. “They said I could go to the city and ask the Red Cross to help me.”

The card described a Canadian Red Cross program called First Contact. The program provides assistance to refugee claimants upon arrival in Ontario, as well as Vancouver. Often the first challenge a newcomer faces in Canada is finding accurate, reliable and up-to-date information.

First Contact provides that, assisting newcomers with information such as how to make a refugee claim, how to apply for legal aid and welfare, where to find affordable housing, how to secure employment, and how to achieve an independent and secure life.

With help from Jean Suh, Ontario’s First Contact program coordinator, Hassan found a room to stay at Matthew House, a Toronto refugee reception service with three houses in downtown Toronto. “Jean helped me understand what the Red Cross does,” Hassan says. “She not only told me what they do for refugees, I also learned about the other things they do for Canadians and others around the world.”
 
Hassan spent two and a half months at Matthew House’s Dundas Street West location, which he shared with between 10-12 residents. “The atmosphere of Matthew House is very friendly,” Hassan says. “It feels like home. My second week staying here I told them that I loved cooking so I began doing the cooking for the house.”

From Matthew House Hassan moved into an apartment in Toronto with a couple of friends. He received his work permit in 2009 and gained permanent residency in 2011. He now works part-time as a bookkeeper at a downtown church and part-time at Matthew House. He says the Red Cross, and the range of migrant and refugee services they provide, gave him the chance to build the life he now has.

“The Red Cross is an organization that will help everyone. It doesn’t matter what religion or what background they have,” he says. “They want to help people as human beings."

Hassan's life in Canada continues. He is now married and recently became a father. He says his new daughter fills his home with happiness. “I can’t wait to finish work each day so I can go home and spend time with my wife and my baby,” he says.

First Contact services are available in several languages, including English, Spanish, Mandarin, Punjabi, Farsi and French. To learn more about the program, you can visit us online or reach out to a local Canadian Red Cross office.

You can also support the Canadian Red Cross by donating online.