Romero House came to life in 1991 when a small group, who believed that refugees could be treated differently, took over a refugee shelter threatened with closure. They welcomed refugees to stay in apartments without internal locks, as neighbours rather than simply clients, and set out to help them to establish themselves in Canada and create community together.
At the time, there was no real plan in anybody’s mind and no idea of anything like what we have become. We used no studies or theory of how refugees should be welcomed. This was something of the spirit: bigger than any one person.
Mary Jo Leddy was on the board of a newspaper looking for an editor. The person they wanted to hire was living as a night manager in a house for refugees. Before that person could become editor, they first needed to find a replacement as night manager. All it involved was sleeping there. Mary Jo agreed to do so for a month, until a permanent replacement could be found.
The shelter had staff during the day and a night manager at night. The sponsored refugees, for whom the house was intended, had not yet arrived. Instead they took in refugee claimants. On the first night that Mary Jo was there, she heard a knock on the door. At her door one of the refugees motioned to her to join them for tea. This became a nightly ritual. The women had nothing, money only for rice and beans and this tea. Together they would sit, laugh, put on music and somehow communicate. Over these evenings, these residents created Romero House.
At a certain point, those running the shelter announced that it was to close. Over time, a group of people had visited the house and gotten to know the refugees. In conversation, they realised that, with the money, what was there could be continued – continued with a new model. After meetings asking ‘Should we?’ and ‘How?’, a time came for action.
Following the fire at The Rupert Hotel in 1989, in which 10 people perished, a fund had been made available releasing millions of dollars for housing the homeless. At the time, many of Toronto’s homeless were refugees, newly arrived and without money. The perfect case was there to be made.
They searched for a name through metaphors and biblical phrases. Finally, in the midst of conversation, someone said ‘What about Oscar Romero?’. As soon as it was suggested, it made immediate sense. Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador in El Salvador, spoke out against injustice, poverty, and torture. He was assassinated in 1980. He exemplified the hope for faith and justice, and the inclusivity that Romero House was to embody. It was immediately clear that this would be our name.
At the heart of Romero House is a fundamental decision to say ‘I trust you’ by choosing not to lock our internal doors. This, and our decision to have our staff live in our houses, led to many negotiations with the city. Eventually, after viewing fifty houses, we bought three of the four that we now inhabit. Another decade later, we would move into our centre on Bloor Street West, and build the extension that is our fourth house.
We decided to stay in the neighbourhood, it had a great deal to offer and we wanted to have the houses close by each other, with a large group of people who could support each other. Over several years, and through difficulties as well as many small acts of kindness, neighbours came together, culminating in a decision to have an annual street party. It became clear that we’d never just been living in our houses but in a neighbourhood. More and more of the neighbours offered to help in our work: providing jobs or taking kids to school. Living as good neighbours to all those around us became a fundamental part of our way of being. We went on to participate in the process that named this neighbourhood: the West Bend.
After four years, the volunteer program (now known as the Worker Program) emerged in a rocky way. Giving young people the chance to do the work of Romero House was the idea of Lorne Howcroft. He reckoned that there were young people out there who’d love to do this, and didn’t get enough chances to do meaningful work. Today, much of the work of Romero House is done by a team of interns, who choose to spend a year of their lives living in community and service.
As Romero House grew, another story was being written: of those first residents who became at risk of deportation, having been given negative decisions at the Refugee Board. Discovering the corruption that had led to this, and lobbying to eventually secure their status in Canada, we realized that tea and housing couldn’t keep everything cosy. Personal relationships and spending time together led us to advocacy. Since then, different issues have led us to advocacy in specific and dramatic ways. Our advocacy efforts continue to be led by the faces of those in front of us.
Several waves of refugees have arrived since we began: from the Horn of Africa, from Eastern Europe after the breakup of the Soviet Union, from Iran, Colombia and Mexico. Through this, we have tried to avoid having only those from the same country or region as residents. We have welcomed hundreds, and served thousands, from many different places and backgrounds. Each wave of refugees has its own story, as does each person who has become part of our community.