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'This is hell:' refugees say they've been sent to Cambridge to 'sit and wait'

'We have no plan,' says Bridges executive director as they try to house and feed refugees arriving in Cambridge with little support from upper levels of government
Cambridge Shelter Corp. executive director, Wayne Paddick stands in front of the emergency shelter on Ainslie Street.

Refugees and asylum seekers coming to Canada for safety and opportunity for a better life are ending up in a Cambridge shelter with no answers on what's next. 

Over 25 per cent of the beds at The Bridges shelter are being occupied by refugees that were sent here from Toronto and other areas of Ontario to live in a shelter system that is nearly maxed out. 

"I sit here and wonder where my next meal is going to come from. This is hell," said 38-year-old Nigerian refugee Temi Fela. "I don't know what is going to happen next or what I am going to do, I am basically waiting." 

Having been in Cambridge for just over two months, Fela was handed a bus ticket when he arrived in Toronto and sent to Cambridge to start his Canadian journey. 

Now eating his lunches at the Trinity Community Table, he spends every day wandering around the city, looking for work and something to occupy his time. 

Back home in Nigeria, Fela worked as a heavy machine operator in a sand mine where he was in charge of four groups of workers. Now, he sits on a park bench in downtown Galt, wondering how he can find a job. 

"I just need a job, I will do almost anything, I just need to work," he said. "I spent 17 years out in the field and my hands can't be still, I need a job." 

Without Canadian certifications and training it will be nearly impossible for him to get back in the seat of one of the heavy machines he basically called home for nearly two decades. 

Having to leave his wife and three kids back home and come to Canada was not an easy decision, but it had to be done to escape life-threatening circumstances, he said. 

"My goal now is to try and get my family back to me," Fela said with a breaking voice. "I miss my girls. There is something about a father's relationship with his girls that is just different, I miss them."

Wayne Paddick is the executive director of Cambridge Shelter Corp., which operates The Bridges, where most of the refugees are staying. He explains the situation they are facing plainly and simply; they have no plan. 

"We don't have any plan on how to deal with these increases, especially with refugees coming here," Paddick said. "We have had virtually no communication with the province or federal government on how to deal with this situation." 

Cambridge MP Bryan May, recognizes the work that The Bridges has been doing in supporting the local refugee population and commends them for not turning them away. 

"The community often gives The Bridges a bad rap, but the work they are doing is invaluable," May said. "Canada needs to continue to be a safe haven for refugees and asylum seekers, that's the price of being a G7 nation." 

May said the federal government is responding to the high number of people coming into the country and references the $210 million added into the interim housing fund to help house asylum seekers and refugees; nearly half of the money went directly to Toronto. 

This boost to the country's largest city is what prompted regional outreach to the feds back in August, but according to regional councillors that call has fallen on deaf ears. 

In August, the region appealed to the federal government for piece of the $210 million to help address the growing needs of its community's shelters and to help build a dedicated settlement home for refugee claimants. 

If the region was able to get everything they wanted, it would cost around $46 million. 

Regional councillor for Cambridge Pam Wolf told CambridgeToday in an email, that there has been no update or further discussions with any higher levels of government and nothing has changed, despite the growing crisis. 

May has also met with business leaders in the community to address some of the issues the refugees, some of whom are skilled workers, are facing trying to get into the workforce. 

"We are working at connecting the dots a bit better, but we need all levels of government on board," May said. "The money and the resources are there to access, but we understand the criteria hasn't been evaluated in a while." 

While Cambridge Shelter Corp. waits for more funding to come from higher levels of government, they have been able to successfully house six refugees since August. 

Although Fela has only been here for a few months, he has been granted a work permit but the issue is there are no jobs available. 

"I go and see these lines for job postings, or no one gets back to me," he said. "All I need is a chance to prove I can work. I don't care even if I don't get paid at first I just need to prove to them I can do it." 

May said the government is piloting programs domestically within the Canadian Armed Forces that will help skilled workers obtain proper certifications to help them meet provincial guidelines, but this is a provincial issue. 

For now, all Fela can do is sit and wait until he gets an opportunity to work. Fighting for a position with thousands of international students and domestic workers looking for jobs is no easy task, he said. 

"Trust me. I do not take being here for granted. I just want to have a chance to live a better life and some communication on what I am supposed to do or how to do it would be helpful."

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Joe McGinty

About the Author: Joe McGinty

Joe McGinty is a multimedia journalist who covers local news in the Cambridge area. He is a graduate of Conestoga College and began his career as a freelance journalist at CambridgeToday before joining full time.
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