Good news

Oak Bay Welcome House welcomes first two refugees thanks to generous community support

Refugees receive housing, tutoring, counselling and other assistance

By Emily Fagan
March 26, 2021
Good news

Oak Bay Welcome House welcomes first two refugees thanks to generous community support

Refugees receive housing, tutoring, counselling and other assistance

By Emily Fagan
Mar 26, 2021
Cenit Muñoz / Submitted
Good news

Oak Bay Welcome House welcomes first two refugees thanks to generous community support

Refugees receive housing, tutoring, counselling and other assistance

By Emily Fagan
March 26, 2021
Oak Bay Welcome House welcomes first two refugees thanks to generous community support
Cenit Muñoz / Submitted

Oak Bay welcomed two new residents this month: Mario Abebe and Angelina, two refugees from Ethiopia and Mexico, respectively. Tucked just off Oak Bay Avenue, their new home is in the Welcome House on Monterey Avenue.

The Welcome House, along with another like it, was established through a partnership between the municipality of Oak Bay and the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society (VIRCS) in 2018, which sought to provide transitional affordable housing for refugees.

For $500 a month, residents of the two-storey Welcome House have access to furnished housing, laptops, English language courses, counselling, a case manager, gym memberships, and a community garden. Although Abebe and Angelina are the first refugees to move into this house, more will be accepted to fill the three remaining rooms soon.

“They moved here three weeks ago, and they have been very happy with us,” Cenit Muñoz, co-manager of the Welcome House, said. She lives in the house as well, alongside her partner and co-manager Dallas Posavad.

After two years of living in Canada, Abebe looked forward to the affordability and support home this new home provided. When he first moved from Ethiopia, he says he faced many challenges and a lot of pressure in getting used to this new country—a situation he hopes will improve during his nine-month stay.

“The managers are so friendly,” he said. “I like that the house has a big backyard.”

It’s because of how much the community has embraced the Welcome Houses, Muñoz said, that they’ve been able to find success through this program.

Nearly everything in the house has been donated by a community group or local business, from the laptops, to the furniture—even the paint on the walls was donated.

Sally Glover, a volunteer with the Welcome House, has seen the generosity of the community first-hand in her role of facilitating donations.

Karina Gomez, owner of Food on the Run, volunteering with the Welcome House. Photo submitted.

“All the people were absolutely so fantastic,” she said, of those at local companies who have donated goods and time. “It just makes your heart melt.”

From the very start, that’s something Muñoz says she has seen from the community. When she and Posavad went door-to-door to gather support for the Welcome House to be rezoned, she was shocked that about 60 people sent in letters of support for their project, with only one person opposed.

Reading the letters filled her with a deep feeling of acceptance as someone who immigrated to Canada, Muñoz said. 

“I'm not a refugee, but I just felt so welcome,” she said. “We didn't even imagine that it was going to be that positive [a response] from the neighbours that they would be writing letters of support.”

Now, Muñoz says she had more volunteers interested in helping out than she can take on during COVID-19. In addition to the Oak Bay Rotary Club, there are more than half a dozen volunteers who assist with activities, translations, gardening, and fundraising.

After hearing about Abebe’s skills at pool, the rotary club set up games between him and one of their members. Other volunteers have gone on walks with the residents, exploring the neighbourhood and visiting the beach.

These volunteers also help to support the other Welcome House on Hampshire Road, in which a family of five Syrian refugees has lived for the past two years.

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Muñoz says the support offered through this project works to help address some of the challenges refugees face, including food insecurity, cultural shock, and computer literacy. Counselling and English classes are available through the program, and the co-managers work to help guide residents in learning to use online tools they may not be familiar with. In addition to providing some store-bought food, Muñoz says they provide everything in the community garden for residents to grow the food they’re used to from their home countries. 

This has also provided an opportunity for residents and volunteers to share their different methods of growing and preparing food, which Muñoz has enjoyed.

“It's been amazing because there's a lot of food exchanged between cultures,” she said.

Currently, Muñoz is reviewing applications for the three remaining rooms for refugees. To ensure this house can continue to provide vast and affordable resources for refugees, Glover and the fundraising team have been pursuing sponsorships and talking with MLA Murray Rankin about programs to offset the cost of their electrical bills.

A big base of their funding support, however, remains at the grassroots level. The immigrant and refugee society has recently launched a GoFundMe for the Welcome Houses, which they say will help them expand their services to include transportation, education, and training, in addition to lowering the cost of the rent.

In time, Muñoz is confident that all the support locals have provided to the Welcome Houses will be paid forward into the community.

“Housing is a need for everyone,” she said. “We are preparing them to give back to the community.”

Correction at 10:55 on March 26: This article originally referred to the Oakland Rotary Club. It has been corrected to say "Oak Bay Rotary Club".

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