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Agency Profile: Canadian Human Rights International Organization

“Potatoes and peppers today," says Second Harvest driver Ed as he hands out boxes of produce to the volunteers waiting in CHRIO’s parking lot. “This jam’s for the ladies,” Ed jokes about a box of President’s Choice Cherry Shiraz jelly. The food is hauled inside and laid out for the expected families of newcomers – apples, peppers, potatoes, yogurt, cereal, granola bars and sausages.

Every Tuesday, CHRIO, with help from Second Harvest, provides food for the week for approximately 30 newcomer families, from a single mother with an only child, to a family of ten. A half-dozen volunteers assist with setting out the food and ensuring each household gets an appropriate amount.

The partnership between CHRIO and Second Harvest is new: adding CHRIO to Second Harvest’s truck routes in November allowed them to start their food program. Lilian Julieth Guilombo, Founder and Youth Human Rights Program Director, says that the fresh surplus of food makes a difference to the newcomer families, “Our people who come here, from [places like] South America, are used to eating more fresh food. It helps with the adjustment [to life in Canada]. Canned foods aren’t familiar to them.” Stephanie Zabonas, Executive Director, underscores the importance of accessing fresh food:  “It’s nice for people to be able to provide to their families healthy, real food. […] They’re able to cook familiar dishes.”

Run entirely by a team of passionate volunteers, primarily students, CHRIO supports refugees and newcomers with the challenges of coming to Canada and adapting to Canadian society. The food program helps the families with the transition: fresh food makes a difference while new families are overcoming language barriers and securing jobs. CHRIO offers a variety of other services for its clients: a shoe and clothing bank, seniors’ social groups, legal advice and representation, language assistance and job counselling.

CHRIO was founded 2007 by Mario Guilombo, Human Rights Program and International Missions Director. He was a refugee from Colombia, where he had been an anti-corruption officer when he was attacked, “I lost everything in 48 hours. My leg was broken, I received five bullets in my body.” His four-year-old daughter was shot in the leg. “The Canadian government was the first to offer us protection; we received our papers in less than 25 hours.” Mario and his family came to Canada in 2001 and founded CHRIO.

Recently, many of their clients are refugees from Venezuela, Syria and Iran, and they’ve seen an increase from Thailand and Bangladesh. Mario fights to ensure that newcomers are not second-class Canadian citizens; he says that Canada needs to ensure that people can do the jobs they’re trained to do, “No more Phd’s as taxi drivers. No more engineers as cleaners.” He finishes with why he does the work every day: “the most important thing is when you change the life. To hear, ‘Thank you, thank you, my family is here.’”