Community grant aids support to Arabic immigrants and refugees during COVID-19

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By Gaurav Ghose, Canadian Red Cross communications volunteer

Hassan Kharfan (L), receives a food box from the Iraqi Canadian Society (ICS) in London, Ontario. The ICS is a Toronto-based non-profit that is using funds received from the Canadian Red Cross to distribute food packages to 2,000 vulnerable Arabic-speaking across Ontario during COVID-19. Photo: Gaurav GhoseSince Hasan Kharfan and his family arrived in Canada in May 2019, managing living expenses has been a challenge. He lives in London, Ontario, with his wife and their children, a son and three daughters.

The family fled Syria when war broke out, then lived in a refugee camp in Turkey for six years before moving to London. The struggle to find a job, combined with a language barrier, has only added to the family’s challenges. And for several months now, there is the new and unexpected wrinkle of making ends meet during a pandemic; a struggle faced by many newcomers to Canada.

“The community we serve is mainly composed of newcomers,” said Eman Said, director of the Iraqi-Canadian Society (ICS), a Toronto-based non-profit. “They face challenges related to financial wellness, settlement, and employment. Many of them already have higher education but are not able to restart their career here.”

Established in 1992, ICS not only creates awareness and provides career guidance to new immigrants and refugees from the Arab-speaking world, it also organizes social and cultural programmes with an aim towards social inclusion.

The COVID-19 pandemic raised a new set of issues facing the community, including food security challenges among vulnerable families. Food distribution became more important than social and cultural programming, which had to be discontinued to follow health and safety guidelines. 

“COVID-19 has greatly added to the challenges for the people we serve, mainly those who are new to this country. This group is particularly suffering as they lack the ability to access government assistance as well as lack of income,” explained Said.

Maha Khedher (L) and Zamrud Hassan help prepare food boxes for distribution to vulnerable Arabic-speaking families. They are board members of the Iraqi Canadian Society, a non-profit which is using funds from the Canadian Red Cross to support those in need during COVID-19Using funds provided by the Canadian Red Cross to help non-profits provide frontline services during COVID-19, ICS has organized food box distributions in cities across Ontario. The organization will reach 2,000 people, including the Kharfan family who received a food box during the first distribution in London. Other cities include Toronto, Hamilton, Kitchener / Waterloo, Ottawa, and Windsor.

“Hundreds of households are struggling to provide food for their five- or six-member families,” said Ali Abdul Hussein, who is managing the project for ICS. “The assistance they are receiving from food banks does not suffice. Food banks are in fact crying out for help. In some ways, this effort to distribute food on our part, replicates the food bank program. We target it to Arabic-speaking families.”

In addition to distributing food boxes, ICS will also use the funding to organize webinars on legal and health matters for those who are not able to access government programs. “We expect to reach about 2,000 people via the webinars,” noted Said.

Kharfan appreciates the support and says, despite the challenges, life in Canada is better for his family even during a pandemic when every dollar counts more than ever.

“Instead of paying for food this month, I will have extra money in my pocket,” he said.

The Canadian Red Cross is funding the continuation of this work thanks to the generous support of the Government of Canada’s Emergency Community Support Fund granting program.

If your organization is a non-profit that delivers services to those who are the most vulnerable to the health, social and economic impacts of COVID-19 you may also be eligible for grant funding. Please visit to learn more.

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