For six years, Ali Mesgarzadeh lived in limbo in the United States, unable to return to his home and family in Tehran during the turmoil of the Iranian Revolution and later the Iran-Iraq War.
Then Canada opened its doors.
“People leave because of war, economic situations and political persecution. No one wants to leave their home if they had a good life and a good job,” said the 62-year-old Toronto man, who joined his sister and moved to Canada in 1987 after finishing an engineering degree in Chicago and finding himself an unwelcome guest in the U.S. “I never felt I belonged there, but I feel I’m home in Canada. I belong here.”
When Mesgarzadeh and his three business partners — all immigrants who fled chaos in Iran in the 1980s — saw a City of Toronto notice looking for a site for a temporary refugee shelter, they immediately responded and offered the decommissioned Toronto Hydro building on eight acres of land they’d just bought on Yonge St., north of Finch Ave.
“This is very exciting for us. We can put this building to a great use for something we truly believe in,” said Hessam Ghadaki, whose father, Hashem, and relatives Mohammad Ghadaki, Saeid Aghaei and Mesgarzadeh founded the development company, Times Group Corporation. “This shelter is good for the city, good for the province and good for the country.”
Slated to officially open on Tuesday, the 80,000-square-foot, two-storey shelter is designed for single adult refugees and can accommodate 120 female and 80 male residents. Run by Homes First Society, it offers Halal meals and programming designed for refugees. Staff can speak multiple languages and have expertise in housing support, settlement programs and the asylum process.
The addition of 200 beds at the new shelter, tentatively named Willowdale Welcome Centre, is part of the city’s 2019 winter plan to open an extra 899 spaces to support Torontonians who need shelter during the cold months. The system already has 7,100 beds across 63 permanent shelters, motels and hotels.
Toronto shelters have been overwhelmed by the surge of so-called irregular migrants who cross into Canada from the U.S. outside the official ports of entry and claim asylum here. The influx since early 2018 prompted the government last summer to lease dorms at Humber and Centennial colleges as emergency refugee shelters.
As of October, about 36 per cent of all residents in the city’s permanent shelter system were refugees or asylum claimants, with an average of 15 to 20 newcomers entering the system each day. Most of them are families but there are a growing number of single adults arriving.
Newly arrived refugees will be referred directly to the new facility while those who are already sheltered somewhere else are given the opportunity to transfer here, said Gord Tanner, the city’s director of homelessness initiatives and prevention services.
“They all have similar kind of needs. This helps us provide more focused programming,” he explained. “Refugees and asylum claimants are new to the city and have very distinct needs. They may have questions about the asylum process and legal support. The pro is to have them in one space to access the information they need.”
The new shelter — on a two-year lease by Times Group who bought the property at $122.5 million in April 2018 — has an industrial kitchen and dining hall, as well as a prayer area, a weekly health clinic and an activity room equipped with computers and internet access. There’s also a laundry service and a special room staff can use to clean items infested with beg bugs. The facility is a 10-minute walk from the Finch subway station.
“This is a more comforting environment and they can feel more secure,” said Patricia Mueller, executive director of Homes First.
Last summer, the Radisson Hotel, one of four used to house refugee families, was the scene of an arson and protests by anti-refugee groups. The new facility will have two guards on duty at all times.
While most comparable properties in the area would cost around $20 per square foot plus landlord maintenance costs and taxes, Times Group offered the property to the city at a rate of just $6 per square foot, including maintenance fees.
Ghadaki, whose father first started the company in 1985, said the four founding families started in Toronto by buying, renovating and flipping homes before moving into commercial development. They survived the recession in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and then shifted to building residential homes. This year, their business enterprise has more than 2,200 residential units under construction in the GTA.
“We have friends in our network still coming to Toronto. Every time they arrive, we sit down, hear their challenges and work with them. It is difficult for people to move. They make a lot of sacrifices,” said Ghadaki, 38, who serves as Times Group’s corporate counsel. “It’s good we can give back to society and help people get back on their feet.”
Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung