On the edge of Julie MacDonald’s desk sits a stack of folders, each one to two inches thick. The tall filing cabinet in the corner of her office holds hundreds of folders filled with documents and immigration applications.
“Some of the files in this filing cabinet are still active from 2012” she says. “The majority of them are from 2015 and are also still active. The applicants are still working on bringing their family here.”
Julie MacDonald is the coordinator of Atlantic Refugee and Immigration Services (ARIS) that runs out of The Salvation Army Spryfield location in Halifax. From her small office, she provides assistance for newcomers with immigration and refugee applications.
“ARIS is a unique program to Nova Scotia, providing support for low-income newcomers who are having settlement or family reunification issues. Individuals, for whatever reason through the immigration process, can get separated from their family members, and now they are trying to get reunited. This includes reunification of spouses, partners, and children,” says MacDonald.
The ARIS program largely focuses on the One-Year Window of Opportunity application. This application allow one year for all documents to be submitted to the government, however the application process itself can extend up to thirty months.
“The main role of ARIS is to help people understand all of the different options around immigration, to navigate all of the complex policies around it, and also to help them to fill out the forms and ensure that it is being done correctly,” says MacDonald.
While many of the current applications coming across MacDonald’s desk represent countries such as Syria, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Bhutan, and Nepal, ARIS assists with applications from all over the world. Where language can sometimes be a barrier, MacDonald’s background as an English teacher has helped bridge the communication gap.
“You use more body language. I’m certified English teacher and taught English for five years. Using a technique called total physical response; where you are using your body language and facial expressions you can usually communicate just fine.
“However where individuals don’t feel confident in their language abilities or do not have the language level to feel comfortable talking about immigration, they often come with an interpreter. We get all of our referrals from ISANS, the Halifax Refugee Clinic, and various community partners such as the YMCA and YWCA. If these organizations identify that someone they refer may need an interpreter, they provide one.”
Partnerships with local organizations provide applicants with a support net as they navigate the often daunting immigration process. When completing applications, many of MacDonald’s clients have questions about the legalities of immigrating. In these cases, Dartmouth law firm, BoyneClarke, and the Dalhousie Schulich School of Law provide legal assistance and serve as an enormous support for the ARIS program.
“We have really strong partnerships within the newcomer-serving organizations in Halifax, as well as with the two legal teams. BoyneClarke provides an intern during summer, and Dalhousie provides student volunteers during the academic year. In addition to the dedicated efforts of the students and interns, we also have all of the expertise in their senior lawyers.”
Working through the immigration process with her clients has not been easy. Many tears have been shed in MacDonald’s office as her clients are dealing the emotional trauma of separation and a lengthy wait time for their applications to be assessed. Still, MacDonald is grateful for the opportunity she has to be working with ARIS.
“I try to bring compassion to this work. Yes there is a lot of paperwork, but you are dealing with actual human lives; this is really important to them to be able to see their family, to know their kids are safe. The impact of working with newcomers is so humbling; it is such a privileged opportunity to work with people from all over the world.”