In this week’s edition of our career-advice column, we learn about what it’s like to help refugees adjust to life in Canada and navigate the refugee claimant system.
Name: Luke LaRocque
Job: House parent at Matthew House
In 30 seconds or less, tell me what you do all day at work.
I live here at one of Matthew House’s residences, and I am a resource for the residents that also live here. All the residents of Matthew House are people who are filing or have completed refugee claims—when people get off the plane, customs agents will give them Matthew House’s number. Matthew House employs house parents at each of their residences, with slightly different roles depending on the house. Part of the job here is helping the residents figure out their Canadian life and navigate the refugee claimant system. The other part is a bit like being a camp counselor; it’s about hanging out and managing the relationships in the house. We have a lot of fun. This house is a place for people to live, but it’s also investing in their lives. Everyone lives on a rent that’s geared towards their ability to pay, because the amount of money that the government allows refugee claimants to access is appallingly low.
When did you first become interested in volunteering?
I’ve been a volunteer my whole life. I grew up being a part of a church and helping out at Sunday school and stuff like that, and then I got heavily involved in summer camps. Volunteering has been a big part of who I am for a long time, so when this opportunity came up it was a chance to put all that I had learned into practice. After my wife Alyssa and I returned from working in Malawi in 2010, we were trying to figure out how to take the stuff we had learned there and apply it to a context here in Canada. We had met some friends who knew about Matthew House and their different residences; at some you all share one house, and some are divided into apartment units, like this one. We started out as substitute house parents at one of the other residences for people who were on vacation, and then when this residence was purchased last August they asked us to move here, and we said yes.
Were you always planning on going into this field?
I did my undergraduate degree in theatre. I’m an actor by training, and I still run a theatre company. But with acting, you can become very self-focused, because that’s what it takes to succeed. That didn’t jive really well with me, and so I finished my undergrad and realized that I had a degree in English and theatre and had no idea what to do with it. My parents had some friends who were living in Malawi doing development work, so I went to live with them for two months, and it was amazing. I got to work with local Malawians on youth camps, where we would get young people together to write their own plays about HIV/AIDS that would be presented to their community. It was the perfect antidote to my thoughts about theatre being selfish. I started to look for other ways to help people in an international context, and that led to my master’s. Coming from a theatre background, I knew I had no experience and couldn’t just walk into an International Development department and try to do a graduate degree. So the great thing about the Master’s of Theological Studies in Development at U of T’s Wycliffe College is that you can go into it even if you don’t have a huge amount of previous experience. People came from all walks of life, and we were trying to find ways to make our faith work with our belief that international work matters here in Toronto. Through the program, I did an internship in Toronto with a group called Youth Unlimited up at Jane and Finch, and then I went back to Malawi for another four months with my wife.
In your role as a house parent, what are some of the questions that residents come to you with?
It ranges—sometimes it’s stuff about house maintenance or how to get to a specific TTC stop, all the way to questions about their claims and where they are in the process, which is intensely complicated. It’s hard for me to understand, and I’m a Canadian citizen! So I’m often on the government Canada websites, trying to navigate the claim requirements. Sometimes the residents will have questions about the area we live in, like where to get the best groceries. We also plan activities; in our kitchen we do community get-togethers, where we cook a big meal or have a potluck and everyone brings something from their culture, which has been amazing. We’re not as hands-on as at some of the other residences, but we try to check in with everyone once a day, just to see how everything’s going.
It seems like there’s a lot of interest in the non-profit sector but jobs are few and far between. Do you have any advice for people looking for work in this field?
It’s called non-profit for a reason; there’s going to be a limited amount of income, and there’s never enough to go around. But I think a willingness to meet the needs of others without personal benefit is a life philosophy that it helps to have. That might mean doing an unpaid internship or a volunteer position that’s twice a week, but the number of people I know that started doing something on a volunteer basis that are now working for that organization is huge. For me, working in a place where the work itself is rewarding compensates for not making a lot of money. As for advice, I would say find an organization that does what you support, and find a way to help that organization. That will help you to be happy, and if you are working hard, people will take notice.
What are your favourite and least favourite parts of your job?
There’s a park at the corner of Christie and Davenport, and we went there one night for one of our community meals. Watching all the residents from different cultures eating together and kids playing together…no feeling in the world replaces the joy I felt watching all those people working together and supporting each other. Another great feeling is when residents get their status. When people receive that, it’s always encouraging. The flipside of that, though, is that it’s very discouraging to have to wait with people. The refugee claim system is so backlogged, and it’s devastating for people to have to wait for so long and not know about their claim. Having to watch that is the hardest part.