After twenty years in the same location, the Refugee and Immigrant Advisory Council (RIAC) was forced to leave their office and classroom space at 204 Water Street and suspend English classes due to being unable to make rent.
RIAC provides English as a second language classes, a one-on-one conversation program and an advice program, all completely free of charge to refugees and immigrants in St. John’s. Last semester they offered English classes five times a week to more than 120 students. They also organize community events and cultural celebrations to promote diversity.
“RIAC is like home to me, they took me in and gave me the right tools as a new comer. Words can’t describe how useful they were to me and how grateful I am to them,” said Martin Okeke, who came to Newfoundland from Biafra in June of 2016.
The thirty-three year old organization receives no direct government funding, it relies on donations, grants, and fundraising.
Natasha Blackwood, RIAC’s former Youth and Community Coordinator, says that cuts to employment grants in the provincial budget released this spring meant that RIAC had to lay off its entire staff.
After twelve years with RIAC, Executive Director Jose Rivera has been volunteering full-time for the last couple months to ensure the organization is able to continue offering its services.
“The advice program is still going on because people still need to meet with Jose everyday to get help with their paperwork. So right now he’s operating out of different coffee shops and getting people to meet him there,” Blackwood said.
Through the advice program Rivera helps people with limited English understand government forms having to do with residency, acquiring citizenship and in-land refugee status, as well as regulations around work and student visas.
Blackwood says that since the provincial budget RIAC has lost some of their regular donors and are receiving fewer casual donations. This made it impossible to continue paying the $2,000 in rent, utilities and office supplies needed to work out of their space on Water Street.
After media attention about being faced with eviction, RIAC received a donation from Mark Ward, Executive Director of the Newfoundland International Student Education Program. The donation will allow RIAC to re-open in a new, more affordable location.
“That’s the tricky part, finding a space that’s affordable and can accommodate a lot of people, the English classes are in very high demand. There’s actually a lot of people who come to RIAC’s English classes who are also going to English classes at the ANC [Association For New Canadians] but need a little extra help and we don’t turn anyone away,” Blackwood explained.
Rivera was offered a temporary space with the option to make it RIAC’s permanent home. The space meets the organization’s needs but English classes are suspended until it can be confirmed that the new location is insurable.
While Ward’s donation has bought RIAC some time, it will need more regular donationsto be able to continue operating in a sustainable way. To help this organization, visit www.riac.ca/contribute and set a monthly donation, or call them at 709-754-4122 to arrange a meeting.
It is shameful that the Liberal Government has left an organization that has been offering well-used, invaluable programs for over thirty years, in such a precarious position.