Shelves emptying fast at city’s food banks (Michelle Nash and Jennifer McIntosh, Ottawa East News)

The cupboards are bare at the Heron Emergency Food Centre – and it's not the only food bank in this city that is suffering based on an increased need as Syrian refugees living on social assistance can’t make ends meet.

Louisa Simms, head of the food centre, said that in February and March the centre – at 1480 Heron Rd. – served 684 Syrian refugees.

Simms said they were completely unprepared for the influx of refugees.

“We were told they were moving to buildings on Donald (street),” she said. “We didn’t really expect to see the demand here.”

While Simms said the centre had 119 volunteers last year – about 60 of which are regulars – they had to scramble to find people who could speak Arabic to help deal with the new population.

“They are very patient,” Simms said, adding the families come well prepared with the paperwork they need.

But registering families with four or five children, when the parents only speak a handful of English words takes time. Simms said the food bank only has the capacity to deal with 50 people during the hours it's open.

“We would have liked some advance notice that they’d be coming,” Simms said. “It would have helped us to prepare.”

Simms said the situation would have been worse, but residents have really stepped up to the plate to donate.

“We’ve also had some help from churches,” she said.

On April 16, Jenny Tierney, Beacon Hill-Cyrville Coun. Tim Tierney’s wife, organized an emergency food drive in response to a cry for help from the Gloucester Food Cupboard.

The need was directly related to an increase of more than 450 new families visiting the centre.

After an incredibly successful event – more than $1,200 collected and more than 1,500 pounds of food donated, Jenny and the food cupboard’s manager, Gwen Bouchard, said this is only the tip of the iceberg.

“It’s not just us, everybody needs help,” Bouchard said.

Bouchard said that in February the cupboard was serving around 1,700 families. In March, she said, 2,200 families.

Bouchard said the increase is directly related to the Syrian refugees who have moved into the neighbourhood.

“These families are going to be coming to us for a while,” Bouchard said.

Ottawa Food Bank executive director Michael Maidment said the increase in need is not a surprise, adding that when they heard the federal government would resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees in Canada they expected there would be an increase in need.

“We were ready, we were always ready,” he said. “We understood they would be receiving the equivalent of social assistance. Essentially what we are talking about is what we know all too well already – what they are getting is what people on social assistance get – and there is a great need from people on social assistance. Over 50 per cent of who we service are people on social assistance … so  I am not surprised we would see refugees turn to the food bank. The numbers are high and I hope they don’t continue.”

A large majority of the 1,500 Syrians already living in the capital – 1,118 – are government sponsored, which means they needed help locating housing and other supports.

In response to the resettlement plans, the United Way Ottawa launched a United for Refugees campaign. To date, the campaign has raised $850,000 to help Syrian refugees.

To help determine how to distribute the funding, the United Way issued a call for proposals to invest the donations.  Of the 52 applications submitted, 26 were to help with sponsorship support and 26 were for settlement support.

Currently, the United Way reports the Community Based Allocations Committee is reviewing where the funds will be invested and will announce this decision in June.

In the meantime, food banks like the Nepean-based Halal food bank, the Sadaqa Food Bank, helps feed close to 500 people a week, a number that the organization’s manager Mumta Akhtar expects to rise even more.

“Syrian families are large,” Akhtar said. “We are very overwhelmed.”

Even though the organization is handing out food weekly to families that are coming from across the city, the emergency food bank still seems to manage to fill its shelves.

“We have a strong community,” Akhtar said.

That being said, he added the increase is growing each week.

Jenny said she challenges other wards to also hold food drives to help fill the gap.

“It has to continue,” she said. “It can’t just be one offs.”

Gloucester-South Nepean Coun. Michael Qaqish, who was appointed liaison for the working group on refugee settlement by Mayor Jim Watson, said there’s a lot of work going on behind the scenes.

“We are aware that we need to co-ordinate efforts to stabilize families once the federal funding stops,” he said. “So we are getting to know their needs.”

Qaqish said he’s not surprised to hear there’s demand on local food banks and community health resource centres.

“This is a family of five or six, living on the same amount as a typical family living on social assistance,” Qaqish said. “A large portion of the monthly income has gone to pay for rent, so there’s not a lot left over for food.”

Qaqish said they’ve all been housed in the Donald towers in the east end, Norberrry residences near Mooney’s Bay and in the Pinecrest area.

“Private landlords have been really generous, either exempting first and last month’s rent, or giving a discount on the monthly amount,” he said.

During an April 21 meeting of the city’s community and protective services committee, manager Aaron Burry laid out the municipal immigration strategy, which prompted some councillors to question what happens once the federal funding dries up.

Rideau-Rockliffe Coun. Tobi Nussbaum asked if the city would advocate on behalf of local community health resource centres that are feeling the pinch.

Nussbaum said some centres in his ward were feeling a strain on their food banks and English tutoring services.

Qaqish said he’s been in conversations with Ottawa Centre MPP Yasir Naqvi and John McCallum, the federal Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship. Metroland Media attempted to get information on what type of additional supports that could be coming from the ministry, but it did not respond to repeated requests for that information before press time.

Qaqish said a lot of Syrians are in the skilled trades sector, so staff has been working with the unions on possible training or employment opportunities.

“We’ve also got quite a number who were chefs back home, so we are talking with restaurants,” he said, adding there’s a job fair planned for June.

In the meantime, nearly 200 children have been integrated into local schools and families have been tutored on riding the bus by OC Transpo.

In the meantime, for people who want to help, Qaqish said to donate to local food banks, which have been facing increased demand as a result of resettlement efforts.

“People can also donate to the United Way,” he said.

But for those who don’t want to donate money or goods, sometimes your time is even better, Qaqish said.

“People can contact my office if they’d like to invite people over for a dinner with a typical Canadian family,” he said. “The goal is to make people feel welcome. Sometimes even a smile makes a big difference.”

Source: Ottawa East News