Refugee 613: Spearheading a local response to a global issue 

By Bhavana Gopinath – 

Louisa Taylor is a communications consultant and former Ottawa Citizen journalist, who has written award-winning stories about immigration-related issues for most of her long career. She is now the director of Refugee 613, which co-ordinates our city’s response to the global refugee crisis.

Three out of the four co-founders of Refugee 613 live in Kitchissippi Ward: Louisa Taylor (pictured), Leslie Emory of Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization, and Jack McCarthy of Somerset West CHC. Carl Nicholson of Catholic centre for immigrants, is the fourth founder of Refugee 613. Photo by Kate Settle
Three out of the four co-founders of Refugee 613 live in Kitchissippi Ward: Louisa Taylor (pictured), Leslie Emory of Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization, and Jack McCarthy of Somerset West CHC. Carl Nicholson of Catholic Centre for Immigrants, is the fourth founder of Refugee 613. Photo by Kate Settle

Louisa’s journey from reporter to spokesperson for refugee-related issues was perhaps inevitable. In her early 20s, she spent some time in Tanzania, which sparked her curiosity about other cultures. “I had a window into what it’s like to start a new life in a new country,” she says.

She was able to use that unique perspective in her work as a journalist with the Ottawa Citizen, which provided several outreach opportunities into Ottawa’s diverse immigrant cultures. Louisa’s respectful and empathetic stories helped raise awareness about immigrant issues. She received a Canadian Medical Association Award for Excellence in Media in 2012 for her series “Unhealthy Welcome” on immigrant and refugee health.

Over the years, Louisa’s reporting on immigration, health, community, and international development appeared not only in the Ottawa Citizen, but also in the Toronto Star, The Economist, Themigrationist.net, and NewCanadianMedia.ca. She is also one of the co-founders and co-ordinators of The Travers Debates, which brings journalists and politicians together to support a foreign reporting fellowship. She recently created Datafest Ottawa, a hackathon to explore intersections between migration and new technology. Louisa is honorary co-chair of Welcoming Ottawa Week, and serves on Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s Advisory Committee on Social Innovation.

Louisa firmly believes in the value of welcoming immigrants and refugees.

“Ottawa needs more labour and skilled workers; that’s an easy business case. We want to have a strong socially cohesive community for decades to come. We create that by how well we welcome new members; that’s our social case,” says Louisa.

She speaks of ongoing migrations into Ottawa, and the city’s refugee initiatives – Project 4000 for Vietnamese refugees, and the absorption of refugees from Kosovo and Somalia. To sum up, she echoes the views of an associate: “Immigration is creating the heritage of the future.”

With the impending arrival of Syrian refugees into Ottawa, several city organizations are ramping up their operations and working towards refugee sponsorship and resettlement. These include Kitchissippi United Church, Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization, Catholic Centre for Immigrants, and the Ottawa Muslim Association. Individual Ottawans are also sponsoring refugees, volunteering time or skills, or donating to the cause.

Louisa and her associates realized that while people wanted to help, they often didn’t know where to look for information. To address this gap, she helped organize Refugee 613 with the support of Mayor Jim Watson and several partners.

Refugee 613 is a grassroots, non-partisan project and operates as a one-stop shop to collect and disseminate information about refugee resettlement efforts. It brings together settlement agencies, sponsorship groups, immigration lawyers, local institutions, and volunteers to efficiently address refugee requirements.

Refugee 613 has three objectives:

Co-ordination: Task forces have been convened for areas such as housing, furniture donation, mental health, education, etc. They speak to landlords, churches, doctors, and government agencies to assess current availability; identify gaps; and provide possible solutions.

Communication: Refugee 613 will facilitate communication between governmental and private agencies and the public. For instance, a Sponsorship 101 workshop on November 23 at the Ottawa Mosque helped people through the details of sponsoring refugees privately. A Sponsorship 201 session will help groups that are already formed; details will be available soon at refugee613.ca. Ottawa city councillors including Kitchissippi’s Jeff Leiper and Catherine McKenney of Somerset Ward are supporting these initiatives.

Inspiration: Louisa would like to energize more citizens to help spread the word, and to find creative solutions to some of the immediate issues facing the city’s plans to welcome Syrian refugees.

Louisa concedes that we don’t yet have concrete solutions for many immediate concerns relating to the expected refugee influx, but as she says, “We have to be ready.” She believes that Ottawans will come through for the Syrians, as they have many times in the past for other groups.

Louisa and Refugee 613 believe that by offering sanctuary to people fleeing the Syrian conflict, we will only enrich Ottawa, and contribute to the health and vitality of our city for generations to come.

There are many ways to help Refugee 613! 

Do you have spare office or warehouse space? Can you shelter a refugee family in your home while you are away for winter? Drive families to appointments? Teach English, French, or an employable skill? Louisa would like more people to register at refugee613.ca to keep abreast of developments and volunteer opportunities. You can also follow along on Facebook and @refugee613 on Twitter.

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