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New program aims to foster community among migrant workers in rural Ontario: ‘We can be brothers’ | Breaking:


In December, The Neighborhood Organization opened an office in Simcoe, Ont., to provide migrant farm workers from the area with access to information on topics such as mental health, taxes and more. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

On a sunny Thursday evening, Pedro Mondragón Rodríguez walks into a church in Simcoe, Ont., with a few other men and a smile on his face.

At the age of 58, Mondragón Rodríguez has been traveling to Canada as a migrant worker for 22 years – nearly half of his life.

Since March he has been coming to Trinity Anglican Church twice a week for a quick meal organized by De Buurtorganisatie (TNO) and to catch up with others in the community. He often takes other workers with him to visit church or do their weekly shopping.

Two men walk across a parking lot at a shopping plaza.
Migrant farm workers shop at the Simcoe Town Center shopping mall in Simcoe, Ontario, on May 26. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

TNO, a Toronto-based group that provides services to newcomers across Ontario, opened an office in the Simcoe Town Center in December and has since been bringing employees like Mondragón Rodríguez together, either in the office or in communal areas like the local church.

“Since they opened here, they helped me too. They helped us with clothes… because I came here with only three pants and three shirts,” says Mondragón Rodríguez in an interview translated from Spanish.

Make connections

Jennifer Rajasekar works as project manager employee support services at TNO and is one of the people responsible for the office in Simcoe, one block from the church.

She and her team there — most of whom hail from the Greater Toronto Area — provide support in navigating the health care system, knowing workers’ rights and accessing mental health resources. The office also offers welcome bags, information sessions, social gatherings and sports competitions.

A woman stands outside an Anglican church during the golden hour on a sunny May evening.
Jennifer Rajasekar, project manager of employee support services at TNO, said that over time the employees who sought TNO’s services have become acquainted with the staff in the office and will often drop by to say hello or bring flowers. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

TNO opened the Simcoe office in Norfolk County, not far from the shores of Lake Erie, to help the area’s many migrant workers closer to where they live and work.

TNO is also working with employers to support employee well-being, Rajasekar said.

As employees walk in and out of the office, many of them greet the staff there warmly, a sign of familiarity.

Some workers walk in with a large group of their friends to show them where to go in times of need, or just drop by to say “hello,” Rajasekar said.

Three people stand at a counter with another person behind, with a banner above the entrance that reads: The Neighborhood Organization;  Support services for migrant workers.
A migrant farm worker speaks to staff members at an information center in the Simcoe Town Center shopping mall. The office opened in December and is open six days a week. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

“We wanted to give them a space (where) you share information,” she said. “At the same time, give them the social space to hang out and talk to each other.”

That social space is the church, where TNO works with a local priest, Father Enrique Martinez, and The Huron Farmworkers Ministry to welcome guest workers on Thursdays and Fridays to socialize, share some food, and collect donations.

Pay it Forward

On this May evening, volunteer Sidique Ali-Hosein is also in the church to greet workers.

Ali-Hosein was a migrant farm worker, so when he heard about the program, he was happy to give to others what he wished he had when he first arrived.

Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, he said when he first came to Canada he didn’t know much about the country or what to expect.

“We had to learn a lot to get here… for those who have these[resources]here. It saves them so much money and time,” he said.

Ali-Hosein helps employees, many also from the Caribbean, by creating bonds and helping to explain the services available.

“When we see how happy and grateful they are, we can go out and make them feel part of the community, feel valued, that’s the most rewarding thing,” he said.

A priest stands outside a church and looks to the side.
Deacon Enrique Martinez stands outside Trinity Anglican Church, where he welcomes migrant workers twice a week for a social get-together. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Pies and other snacks are set out on a table in the front as workers make their way through filling cardboard plates with food.

Before they can start eating, Martinez leads a short prayer asking, among other things, for the working-class families’ health and safety at home and for a prosperous work environment.

The prayer is followed by a rendition in both Spanish and English of Congratulations for two workers who just celebrated their birthday.

“The biggest problem these workers have… and especially in the Hispanic community, is mental health,” Martinez said in an interview with CBC Hamilton, translated from Spanish.

“(Coming to Canada means) packing up a wrinkled heart and leaving with just your clothes and your faith.”

Caring for Mental Health Through Faith

Martinez says that as a Christian he tries to help build a family outside the home for the workers.

Many of those workers come from Mexico, a country where about 78 percent of the population is Catholic, according to Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography. That’s why, Martinez said, it’s important for the employees to be able to connect through religion.

But time is limited on these evening outings.

Wanting to make the most of the trip, employees use the three to five hours they have to buy groceries, send money home, and grab a meal.

As a result, Martinez often gets WhatsApp messages from employees who just want to chat during the week.

Martinez was already working with migrant workers before TNO arrived in the city, but he said the sense of community has grown exponentially thanks to the organization.

“They created an umbrella where we all organized and gave what we had to offer (to the community),” he said.

He said that some workers, most men, even see him as a father figure and call him ‘the father of fathers’.

“My favorite thing is to arrive here and see happy faces, arrive here and see that despite the distance and inequality, we can be brothers,” he said.

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