It Takes Courage: A Photo Essay

MatthewhouseToronto-39By Laurena Zondo
Photos by Johnny C.Y. Lam

Behind her beautiful smile, lies a painful refugee journey. This is her story.

With just a small suitcase in hand, a young girl arrives all alone on Canada’s doorstep. It’s the final stop on the refugee highway for thousands of people each year – including unaccompanied youth like Elisée – fleeing conflict or persecution in their homeland and seeking asylum. But Canada has nothing in place to welcome or assist refugees who arrive without prior government approval. There is no one to greet them. They have no support in place and idea where to go or what to do next.

Elisée is one of the fortunate ones. An airport security guard recognizes her plight and gives her the number of Matthew House – a community of three homes in Toronto that provide shelter for newly-arrived refugee claimants.

Many refugees up spending their first night on the street or in a homeless shelter – susceptible to becoming abused or re-traumatized. In the weeks and months ahead, they also face an arduous, legal process; they struggle with loneliness, trauma, and fears of deportation. Less than half are successful in their claim to stay in Canada.


Elisée calls Matthew House and they scramble to find her accommodation. All of their rooms are full. The only space available is a sofa in the basement where she can stay until a bed opens up. Elisée is grateful for a place to call home. It’s been a long journey. She has been on the move for most of her young life, changing cities, changing countries – fleeing with her family to Burundi, Tanzania, and other neighbouring nations whenever war or violence broke out near them in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “My parents tried to protect us, all their children, as best they could… to take our minds away from seeing people dying in the road.”

Eventually her parents decide that the family needs to move to Canada, a place they consider safe and peaceful. But at the moment they can only manage to send one child. Elisée is chosen. “I hated the idea of leaving my family… leaving people you love and trust the most… coming here all alone. It was really scary, but I had to do it; there wasn’t another choice.”


Matthew House staff and volunteers provide a warm welcome, love and care. They shop for groceries, cook meals, take refugees to medical appointments, outings to the park, and help with all of the paperwork, interviews, job and housing searches that are all part of the refugee claim and settlement process. They even hold mock hearings to help refugees like Elisée prepare for the day they will stand in front of a judge who will determine the course of their life – will they be allowed to stay in Canada or be returned to their homeland? It’s a nerve-wrecking process for anyone to have to go through.


Former occupants of Matthew House often return to visit and volunteer to help those who are newly-arriving. Helton, once a refugee claimant himself who stayed at Matthew House, now works on staff, helping with the settlement process. He understands what refugee claimants go through; all of the fears and anxieties.

Elisée is still haunted by what she witnessed growing up in the Congo. “You can walk outside and find a dead body; imagine, at a young age, seeing stuff like that… see our neighbours, our closest friends being killed… words can not even explain; it’s just so horrible.”

She was encouraged to go to counseling, to help heal these emotional wounds and trauma. “I remember asking myself could I be able again to smile, but see, today I smile.” Three years later, Elisée is able to now talk about her experience. “I still see the picture in my mind, but I don’t feel it heavy in my soul like I used to… I was able to talk about it, and cry. They tell me that it’s okay, you can cry, scream. It’s part of the process of releasing the negative image of things you kept in.”


Near the end of our meeting, Elisée sees a news headline on the TV in the living room:  32 people killed in the Congo. “It’s too much to see… Every time I see something I wonder if my family is okay.” She recently lost contact with her family for about two weeks. “I was seeing this image of people being killed and wondering where’s my family, trying to call friends, asking friends on Facebook to go and see if they’re alive… after two weeks my mom called and said ‘don’t worry, we’re safe, everything is okay.’ But nothing is okay in the Congo because there’s still people dying, being killed, people fighting for their life.”

She looks down and twists the beads on one of her bracelets – a secret gift from her mom that she now wears all the time. “It symbolizes peace and equality. My mom somehow flipped it into my pocket [without my knowing]… when I found it I broke into tears, just remembering seeing my mom and everyone in my family wearing it… bracelets are very meaningful in my culture, it’s how you know you belong.”

Footnote: Elisée is currently in Grade 12 and plans to go to university. “My dream, my goal, is to study civil engineering.” She also hopes that one day more of her family in the Congo will be able to join her in Canada.


Dignity Not Detention

Some refugee claimants face detention – a condition similar to being imprisoned – until their case can be heard and decided. In 2015, Matthew House hosted an international delegation as part of a round table consultation on the topic of “Alternatives to Detention,” convened by the UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency). They later learned that delegates were impressed with the level of care, dignity and respect offered, and see Matthew House as the “ideal model of refugee reception to which all nations should aspire.”


Since opening in 1998, Matthew House has assisted over 1,400 refugee claimants from 93 different nations. It grew out of the vision of its Founding Director, Anne Woolger, who saw the specialized needs of refugees seeking asylum while working at a city-run shelter in Toronto. With the support of her Canadian Baptist family, Anne started Matthew House to provide refugees with a Christian-based, warm welcome in a home-like setting. It has inspired the opening of similar refugee shelters across Canada and the United States. Learn more at

Read this article and more in mosaic magazine 2017: