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When Khassan Saka arrived in Canada as a refugee from Iraq 25 years ago, he had no one to help him.
This month, the 50-year-old Windsor resident will speak before the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, about why newcomers locally and across Canada need support he wishes he had access to when he arrived.
“The refugees we are trying to take from hell to heaven — to them it’s not a heaven yet,” said Saka, president of the Iraqi Canadian Group Organization. “We’re bringing them to a place where they know nothing. We have to look after them so they can give to us tomorrow.”
Saka founded the organization in 2014 soon after moving to Windsor from Ottawa. At the group’s downtown office on Wyandotte Street West, he and more than a dozen employees and volunteers run programs for immigrants and refugees that make the transition to Canadian life a bit easier.
When the local group received an invitation to the UN Forum on Minority Issues, Saka jumped at the opportunity.
“I had nobody helping me. Nothing,” Saka said about his arrival in Canada. He said he will use the UN forum to encourage governments to allocate more funding for social supports targeting immigrants and refugees. “I went through a lot. I suffered.”
Due to travel costs, he will attend the UN forum alone on behalf of the group and the newcomers he’s heard from in Windsor.
Despite the local group’s Iraq-centred name, it offers assistance to people from all nations. Saka estimated they have about 200 active members, and clients from Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Lybia, Sudan, and Somalia.
Since moving to Canada, Saka said he’s travelled back to refugee camps in the Middle East and taken note of how to best help people there.
“They don’t know what they need,” Saka said about refugees who arrive in Canada. “You and I, when we talk to them and find out some of them were raped, some of them were tortured — what they need is healing.”
Newcomers are often not ready to go to school or learn a new language when they first arrive, he said.
When he landed in Canada, he couldn’t speak a word of English, and he wasn’t prepared for the weather. He felt lonely, he said.
“They need rehabilitation first,” Saka said. “They need a program to (help) before they can understand the culture, the weather, the system. They need to feel comfort.”
His group aims to fill gaps in service to newcomers, he said. Many of them rely financially on social assistance. They offer an income tax clinic, seminars on staying safe from telephone fraudsters and community support to those who’ve recently arrived to the country. The Iraqi Canadian Group Organization also runs a 16-page monthly publication in Arabic online called The Ambassador with information about local resources, current events, mental health and more.
“More activities and more services would be provided if we get more funding,” Saka said. That funding is hard to come by, but he’s hoping his presentation at the UN forum urges governments to increase support for organizations like his.
Saka will leave Windsor on Nov. 26 to attend the UN forum, which takes place in Geneva from Nov. 28 to 29.