CommUnity: How Ottawa Welcomed Syrian Refugees

July 6, 2017

by Joanne Pitkin

In 2015, Canadians watched as powerful images of destruction and loss in Syria were shown in the media on a daily basis. As a country, we felt compelled to do something, anything to help these people. When newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees by end of year, the outpouring of support country-wide was overwhelming.

Louisa Taylor, a journalist from Ottawa, was one of the people who felt a strong desire to help, simply because it was the right thing to do. Although, like many Canadians, she wasn’t sure what steps to take. She soon realized that the community needed to mobilize to help newcomers settle into their new lives in Ottawa. Louisa was very quickly able to rally settlement agencies, sponsorship groups and community partners to create a new organization- Refugee613- aimed at creating the building blocks for resettlement.

Louisa often talks about how we just need to “throw the rope,” a nod to literally throwing the rope to refugees adrift at sea. In this case, it means helping people without thinking. Louisa threw the rope by starting a community-building initiative and donors threw the rope by generously contributing funds. Watching in awe of her will to give back and help our new neighbours, our Ottawa office decided to throw the rope in the best way we knew how – by offering our skills as communicators to help tell Refugee613’s story.

Our journey with Refugee613 started in 2016 by helping the organization connect with government and third-party stakeholders that would assist them in gaining further support for their cause.

In May 2017, we helped launch Refugee613’s new storytelling microsite, CommUnity, by providing the organization with a communications plan to help leverage earned, paid and owned media. We hope that the communications put in to the site will support greater visibility for Ottawa’s story and encourage people to continue assisting refugees.

The website was launched at a storytelling event on June 28, which was attended by the Prime Minister’s Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, among other dignitaries. We heard stories from families who picked up and left with nothing but the clothes on their back, stories of newcomers navigating the murky waters of the unknown and stories of the organizations who got them here. All of these stories need to be told to keep momentum going on the refugee movement in Ottawa and Canada-wide. That’s why the CommUnity website is so important, it serves as an archive for the stories showing how a whole city can come together to throw the rope for those in need.

From the beginning of the Syrian refugee crisis and beyond, the strength and resilience of those affected is inspiring. Bringing together those who had to flee their homes, to those who opened their doors and hearts to newcomers, Refugee613 has been critical to creating a sense of belonging in our city. Last year, the organization was recognized as Community Builder of the Year by United Way Ottawa. Given its ability to bring together people of different religions, backgrounds and beliefs to support a single cause, Refugee613 is beyond deserving of this title.

Our experience with Refugee613 brought real meaning to the old adage “it takes a village.” Ottawa’s success with the Syrian refugees was only possible because of many small parts working together. No one person or organization could have successfully resettled thousands of people in a short time. Now, because of our community’s openness and commitment to inclusivity newcomers are thriving. Ottawa isn’t stopping here. Our community will continue to throw the rope, and there are many more stories to be told.

To learn more about this important journey please visit