“There is a lot of joy in the house”
“There is a lot of joy in the house” - Jane
Since 2010, Matthew House Ottawa has housed hundreds of refugee claimants, and provided free, quality used furniture to about 5000 families in need. We have done this as a large, dedicated team of volunteers and a small handful of employees, with a lot of passion and commitment. Each month we share interviews and stories of people involved with or impacted by our work.
What are your names? Jane and Mark
How have you been involved with Matthew House Ottawa?
Jane: We were the volunteer host family for the past year and a half, living in the house alongside eight residents: refugee claimants who would have otherwise been homeless.
How did you hear about the host family opportunity?
Mark: We received an email from a friend at church who volunteers at MHO telling us about the hosting opportunity. We had just returned from living in Indonesia for about five years and we were in transition back to Canada. We are part of the same church community as the first host family and knew of their experience. After discussing the idea in more detail, it seemed like a very natural thing to do. It was like this opportunity found us.
Why were you interested in becoming hosts at Matthew House Ottawa?
Jane: Living overseas, we’ve always worked in some kind of street ministry or outreach feeding program because of our interest in other cultures and helping marginalized people.
Mark: When we came back to Canada, two things were important to us: living in community and finding a way to work with/alongside refugees.
Jane: We were familiar with many of the cultures of the people that would be staying at MHO from living abroad. When this opportunity came up, it seemed like an answer to our prayers.
What were your responsibilities as hosts at Matthew House Ottawa?
Mark: We made MHO as much like a home as we could. We did this by providing a stable presence. When refugees come here, so much of their lives are unpredictable and uncertain. For us, it was important to create times and opportunities of predictability. Some examples of how we did this was by eating dinner together four nights a week, and I’d be up early in the mornings while the residents were getting ready for their day.
We contributed to running the house and did chores alongside the residents. We did the grocery shopping and ensured the volunteer cooks had what they needed to prepare the communal dinners, and the kitchen was stocked with the basics for the residents to make other meals.
Jane: We shared stories about what’s expected in Canada. We helped residents to become more fluid in the culture. We would talk to them about how to shop, provide opportunities to learn how we cook and recycle, which is new to all of them. We passed on all kinds of tips to help ease their adjustment into living in Canada.
What contribution or achievement are you most proud?
Jane: Similar to being a parent, I was most proud and excited when a resident was ready to move out to a new home or got a job. We felt we had contributed to preparing them for the next chapter of their lives.
Mark: I’m most proud about how we worked hard to create a family environment so it didn’t feel institutionalized. We achieved this through shared activities, decorating MHO around the holidays and eating meals together.
Did you have any challenges as hosts?
Jane: Anytime you have a group of people, you are going to have challenges. People are in a tight space. The residents are going through a lot and many of them have been traumatized. It could be a recipe for a lot of tension or challenges but I think for the most part it’s really been a happy place for the residents. There is a lot of joy in the house. We called the chores “life skills”, and explained why it’s important and how each resident can help and serve others. The contribution everyone makes is essential to building community. It can be challenging to get those rhythms working well but it’s hugely valuable.
Do you have an anecdote or story that really moved you?
Jane: One that brought me joy: we have a rule that the residents are supposed to wind things down by 10 p.m. out of respect for community and people trying to sleep. But there were many evenings after we’d had dinner that the residents would make a second supper at 9 or 10 p.m., because in many cultures they eat late. We would hear so much laughter coming from the kitchen. It was such a wonderful sound to hear knowing that the residents were on their second round of sitting at the table enjoying each other and building connections and community.
Mark: This was an example of the residents building community and making new friends. Most of the refugees have left their families and come here alone. Many times residents will make a friend at the house and they move out together.
In your opinion, what is the most important work that Matthew House Ottawa does or provides?
Jane: The most important piece that will have the greatest impact on a refugee’s journey is housing and receiving the support services set up by MHO. Additionally, there are more nuanced needs that are met here like emotional needs, friendships and the sense of community. MHO does best when the refugees come here early in the process when they fully need all of the services.
Mark: Refugees figure things out pretty quickly, but at the beginning they need a home. MHO is a small, contained house where you can walk in, your bags are safe and you can sleep and rest. In a kind of motherly way, MHO creates a nest, a soft landing where refugees can find their footing.
If someone was interested in becoming a host, what qualities would help them to be successful in this role?
Mark: Rarely do things happen as they are supposed to. That’s a description of a big family. A family seldom stays on script. MHO is similar. It just happens to be a bigger family made up of adults with more complicated stories. Being patient and the ability to handle unpredictability would be good qualities.
Jane: It helps if you love people and building a sense of community. The beauty is that it’s a place where anybody can use their strengths to help the residents.
Interview and story by Barb Koppe.
Wanna help? Here is how you can make a difference in our community through Matthew House Ottawa:
Pray: for past, present and future residents and furniture bank clients
Donate: to sustain and grow our impact
Volunteer: with our refugee services program or furniture bank
*Note: interviews have been edited for clarity