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Wearing the best outfit he has with him — a neat T-shirt and a pair of jeans — Alfredo Garcia excitedly hops off a big yellow school bus in this scenic rural community.

The father of two from Mexico says he looks forward to this weekly outing to the Simcoe Town Centre Mall.

He’s one of the hundreds of migrant workers who converge Thursday or Friday evenings from across southwestern Ontario.

Chatter and greetings in Spanish and Patois fill the air, as workers load up on a week’s worth of food supplies from a Food Basics, buy little gifts for loved ones from the nearby Giant Tiger and line up at machines to wire money to families back home.

What’s happening at this community hub is part of a new project that’s meant to support and integrate tens of thousands of foreign workers, who can otherwise live in isolation across rural Ontario. It’s meant to offer them services they often struggle to get, despite being the backbone of many small communities in the province.

The Toronto-based The Neighbourhood Organization (TNO) and its many community partners use this location, and many others, to identify a group that is often invisible and vulnerable, and help them access the health, legal and social services.

What the migrants on the receiving end of these services say is even more important, though, is the feeling of being part of a community in their home away from home.

“Convivir” is how Garcia sums up his weekly trip to the mall and the nearby Trinity Anglican Church for a community dinner served by volunteers to as many as 300 migrants who work on farms, in meat plants and fast-food joints in the area.

“It’s the fellowship,” says the 38-year-old through a translator as he lines up for his dinner rolls, garden salad and a bowl of chili that he says helps with his feelings of homesickness.

“This is why we come here, because we want to convivir with other people in the community.”

The feeling of being welcomed is refreshing for the Querétaro native, who returned recently to start his 10th season under Canada’s seasonal agricultural worker program, which ushers in migrant workers from Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America to help on farms before sending them home at the end of the harvest season.

“This is our only opportunity to get some recreation and to have some relaxing time. It feels good to know that we can come here, hang out, relax, have a bite and chat with people and learn about something,” says Garcia, who spends the rest of his week between his bunk house and the produce farm that’s half an hour away from town.

“It makes us less invisible in this community and it makes us feel more welcome and accepted. It makes us feel like we have a place where we can come in and live with other people, right?”

Supports for migrant workers are generally offered by advocates and volunteers, and sometimes through a patchwork of ad-hoc government-funded programs, because they are not permanent residents and as such are ineligible for settlement services.

However, during the pandemic, there was growing public recognition of their contributions as essential workers and a new awareness of their vulnerabilities due to their precarious immigration status in Canada.

The new project — known as The Migrant Workers Support Services — and its office that opened Friday in the heart of Simcoe have been made possible with $5.7 million in funding from Employment and Social Development Canada. The money is meant to build a network of support in Ontario to ensure the workers’ health, safety and quality of life while living and working in this country.

The project, headed by TNO, brings together dozens of community and faith-based organizations, legal clinics, local networks and multicultural groups in Greater Sudbury, Kingston, Kitchener, Oshawa, Ottawa, Owen Sound, Simcoe, Thunder Bay, Toronto, Windsor and places in between.

“It’s a wraparound,” says Jennifer Rajasekar, TNO’s program manager, who oversees the project. “We learned during the COVID pandemic what the needs and gaps are. We can’t work in silos.”

Unlike typical settlement services that are available at locations with 9-to-5 hours, many of the programs and workshops here are offered in the evenings, after workers’ long workdays, and on weekends. Sometimes, they are delivered to where the workers are, or virtually via What’sApp.

But first, the team of multilingual outreach workers have to be able to locate the workers in the first place and start to build a rapport with them.

“Reaching them is the hard part,” says Daniel Quesada-Rebolledo, a program co-ordinator and outreach worker. “Sometimes, you reach out to one of these community groups, they tell you right away where they are. Other times, that can be challenging. Someone tells you about this apartment building where they live and you’re outside waiting, suddenly 40 Mexican or Thai workers come off the bus.

“Another part is how do you build that relationship? You just have a random person walking up to these folks at a grocery store or at a restaurant or whatever it is. You have maybe a two-minute window to tell them who you are.”

But the majority of migrant workers are receptive to the offer and many come with questions about the services available, how to access an income tax clinic, how to do daily banking and navigate the health system, about Canada Pension Plan and parental benefits.

Information workshops and one-on-one counselling are held in various languages, along with regular recreational activities such as an upcoming soccer tournament in August and a planned dominoes night in the works.

Father Enrique Martinez says the Huron Farmworkers Ministry is grateful to be a partner in the project. It allows the church community to expand the work its congregation has already been doing since the middle of the pandemic.

“We try to open a space for the workers to come here not only for supper, but we want to offer some relief for their mental health,” says Martinez. “Faith is hugely important for the workers, especially those who are Spanish-speaking. We’d pray together.

“They are in Canada away from their families and it really damages their mental health.”

Jamaican farm worker Jaygon Brown’s bus arrived in town from work in the nearby town of Jarvis around 7 p.m. this summery evening, and many of the items such as clothes, boots and hats donated to the church have already been taken.

It was only his second visit to the church dinner after he was stopped a week ago by an outreach worker outside the Simcoe mall.

The 33-year-old from Montego Bay used to work in trades but was forced to leave home to work in a flower nursery in Canada for the first time last year. The pandemic has left the economy in Jamaica in rough shape.

“We are brought to Canada to work. We work long hours. That’s OK, but it’s just really difficult to be away from family,” says the father of three, as he grabs one of the last donated water bottles left in a box.

“We are here for a better life for our kids and ourselves. It’s nice to have a place like this to get a hot meal and some support,” says Brown as he hurries back to the mall, where a bus will later pick him up and take him back to his “bubbled life” in Jarvis.