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Common Threads: A Year in Reflection

January 22, 2020

The Common Threads program was created in response to the unprecedented levels of displacement occurring on the North American continent, with hundreds of thousands of migrants fleeing Northern Central America every year. While Canada only sees a fraction of these migrants due to its geographic location, the number of asylum claims in Canada by individuals from around the world has risen 170% since 2016, with 63,830 asylum claims processed in 2019.

Common Threads engages in research, advocacy, awareness, and outreach to create a positive and empowering narrative around forced migration. Through our work, we aim to uphold the dignity and humanity of all people forced to flee, irrespective of official labels such as undocumented, refugee, economic migrant, asylum seeker, claimant, or otherwise. Common Threads seeks to harness and emphasize the power of citizens, organizations and institutions in making cities inclusive and safe harbours for all who are forced to flee. 

In 2019, SCSC made great strides in building out the Common Threads program and engaging directly with the Montreal community to foster inclusion for newcomers. Achievements of the Common Threads program in 2019 include:

  • formation of partnerships with Médecins sans Frontières Urban Spaces, the Atwater Library and Computer Centre, and PRAIDA (le Programme régionale d’accueil et d’intégration des demandeurs d’asile); 
  • establishment of the Welcome Sessions initiative; 
  • production of research on the post-migration mental health of forced migrants in Quebec; 
  • gathering of stories from migrants and community workers; and 
  • organization of two major community events to promote awareness about forced migration.

Welcome Sessions

I have been here only a day and a half, and until you [the volunteers] came, I’ve felt hopeless and frustrated. Arriving here was an emotional and mental shock. Just today, I was reaching my breaking point emotionally, and then the volunteers arrived and gave us a wonderful experience, a walk on the mountain. We felt calm and relaxed for the first time since arriving. It is like a kind of yoga, or meditation, something spiritual, a hope, that everything will be fine.

Monica, Age 40, Mexico

As of January 19 2020, 997 asylum seekers are being housed in the Greater Montreal area. Out of all the provinces in Canada, the highest number of asylum claims are made in Quebec. Upon arrival, asylum seekers are sent to one of two shelters—the YMCA Residence or the Royal Victoria—where they receive two weeks of food and shelter. After that period, they are required to find their own houses and often left to navigate the city themselves.

Volunteers conversing with a newcomer. Photo credit: Miles Astray

As a volunteer at the YMCA Residence, Jessica Farber, former Program Manager of Common Threads, noted how disconnected and isolated newcomers were from the wider community. She approached SCSC founder, Kim Samuel, with the seeds of an idea, and in April 2019, SCSC launched a new initiative within Common Threads to connect newly-arrived asylum seekers with local Montrealers—Welcome Sessions.

These weekly sessions are run by local volunteers who invite asylum seekers from the YMCA Residence next door to the Atwater Library for an hour of small group conversation about life in Montreal. They discuss free events and festivals in the city, the ins and outs of different neighbourhoods, useful Facebook groups, and community resources. While some volunteers facilitate conversations, others play with the children. Occasionally, the volunteers take participants on excursions and converse while exploring the city. Newcomers are able to gain a more intimate understanding of their new home through the knowledge shared by local residents and the volunteers learn about different cultures, backgrounds, and the realities of forced migration.

Since April 2019, the Common Threads Welcome Session volunteer base has grown to over 90 Montrealers of all ages and backgrounds, who have collectively welcomed over 700 asylum seekers.

Our volunteers have played a fundamental role in growing this initiative, by organizing their own events including a Holiday Party, Winter Clothing Drive, and Book Drive. As a citizen-led initiative, the Welcome Sessions are a testament to how every city and resident has the potential to build a more welcoming and inclusive space for newcomers. To that end, SCSC has created a Welcome Sessions Toolkit, which provides a step-by-step guide for any individual, group, or organization interested in starting a similar initiative in their community.

Anyone interested in becoming a Common Threads Welcome Session volunteer can sign up by filling out this form.


Our programming is informed by research on forced migration, and the Social Connectedness Fellowship Program is the cornerstone of our research outputs. 

2019 Social Connectedness Fellow, Priya Nair, focused her research on the mental health of asylum seekers and refugees in Quebec. Her report identified four key determinants of post-migration mental health: legal processes, detention, integration challenges, and social connectedness/isolation. 

In previous years, fellows have examined community-based approaches to integration, the challenges faced by asylum seekers and refugees with intellectual disabilities in Europe, policies and practices that build a sense of belonging among refugees in Montreal, and the impact of media narratives on the inclusion of refugees in Canada.

Awareness through Storytelling

Each and every one of us has a unique story. Our stories may have different characters, take different paths, but they are united in a fundamentally human narrative. 

SCSC collects and shares the stories of asylum seekers, refugees, and community workers to highlight the “common threads” that unite us all. Over the past year, we have been asking migrants about their hopes and dreams and probing community workers about what drives them to do the work they do. We have collected oral histories of those forced to flee in series titled What We Leave Behind. In the coming year, we will be mapping these stories together and showcasing them in Montreal.

Community Events

Attendees at the Unseen Driver of Migration event.

In addition to storytelling, SCSC also hosts community events to build awareness on forced migration. Last year, we hosted two major events: Narratives of Migration at Cuisine Ta Ville and the Unseen Driver of Migration: Climate Change and the Crisis of Protection in Central America.

Cuisine Ta Ville is a city-wide celebration of the rich diversity of migrants that make up the social fabric of Montreal; in collaboration with MSF Urban Spaces, we invited experts to speak about the mental and physical health impacts of migration and discuss the potential for cities to be positive actors in welcoming people forced to flee. During our event on the Unseen Driver of Migration, we raised awareness on the often-overlooked impact of climate change on forced migration, with a focus on Central America and Mexico, through testimony from humanitarian aid workers, researchers, and activists.

Coming Up in 2020

Our endeavors this past year in outreach, research, and awareness have been foundational in establishing Common Threads as SCSC’s newest program. Given the positive feedback from participants, volunteers and partners of the Welcome Sessions, we are expanding sessions to the Royal Victoria Residence this year, which houses 700 asylum seekers when at maximum capacity. We will continue collecting stories and building them into a larger mapping project, which we intend to showcase this coming year. If you are a refugee, forced migrant, or community worker with a story to share, please contact Priya Nair at

By sharing stories, listening to each other, and getting to know those from different walks of life, each of us can build social connectedness; ultimately, this is what will allow us to foster a more positive and empowering narrative around forced migration.