Conveying a ‘welcome home’ message to Toronto’s newest residents

Vera Dodic, manager, Toronto Newcomer Office, asks newcomers to call the city ‘home’. Vera Dodic grew up never imagining that she would live anywhere but in Belgrade, the city where she was born in former Yugoslavia. Having worked with refugees and internally displaced people back home, She experienced first-hand the profound challenges of establishing herself while bringing up a young family, a situation familiar to many immigrants. In 2013, two decades after first moving to Canada, she played a key role in forming the City of Toronto Newcomer Office which she continues to lead. Throughout her career, Dodic has focused on social justice and refugee issues, working in different roles with Save the Children UK and the Canadian Red Cross, before joining the City of Toronto in 2005.

What brought you to Canada?
Growing up in Belgrade, I enjoyed all the freedom and opportunities that any country could offer. I travelled, studied and planned for a bright future. But, with the political tensions and subsequent wars in former Yugoslavia, all that came to a halt. My country no longer existed, and I was no longer able to afford the basic necessities for my young children. What was even more heartbreaking was the direction my country was headed in. I no longer felt at home in my own city, and lost a sense of belonging. After researching our options and considering a few countries, my husband and I decided to apply for permanent residency in Canada.

How has your journey shaped your career choices?
After an initial year in Canada, I accepted a position with Save the Children UK back in former Yugoslavia. Although I did not want to leave Canada, I wanted to contribute to the developments in my former country in a positive way. For the next few years, I went back and worked on a program that saw some 4,000 refugee children reunited with their parents after years of separation. It was very rewarding work, and I know that some of these reunited families ended up in Canada. In 1999, the war came to my doorstep in Belgrade and I once again had to flee with my family.
Arriving in Toronto again truly felt like returning home. I then pursued a career with the Canadian Red Cross, where in my final role I was responsible for all programs and services delivered by my agency in Toronto.

Tell us about the work you do at the Toronto Newcomer Office.
I have had the great privilege of leading the development of the City of Toronto’s Newcomer Office since it was established in 2013. My work is at a strategic level to influence change. A lot has been achieved since the Office was formed. There is increased engagement and responsiveness of City divisions to newcomer issues, access to municipal and other services has been improved, and our collaboration with our community partners as well as other orders of government are now significantly stronger. But what I am the most proud of is the Toronto Newcomer Day. It is an annual event that brings together City divisions, community agencies, other orders of government and newcomers. Since 2015, more than 45,000 people have attended this inspiring, community building event that demonstrates the importance of that “welcome” message to our newest residents.

Can you share a special memory about Canada?
In 1999, after several sleepless nights with constant sounds of bombs and sirens, an opportunity for us to return to Toronto came up. We packed and within an hour, were on a bus, travelling on dirt roads to avoid bridges and larger cities as these became bombing targets. We then flew from Budapest to Toronto. When the immigration officer at Pearson Airport asked if we had anything to report, I tensed up and in low voice said that we don’t have anything to report. She responded with a warm “welcome home.” That “welcome home” epitomized Canada for me, and will continue to inspire and drive my work.

What is your advice to newcomers?
Aim high and don’t underestimate your skills. This is your home.

-CanadianImmigrant

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