For Newcomers, the Library is About More than just Books
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For Newcomers, the Library is About More Than Just Books

The Toronto Public Library is upping its newcomer support resources to serve the influx of Syrian refugees.

North York Central Library. Photo by James from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

North York Central Library. Photo by James from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

The sound of overlapping drum rhythms and nearly dissonant quarter-tone melodies fill the North York Central Library. A group of 50 or so newcomers sway to the music, clapping and singing along to the familiar Syrian folk songs, led by renowned Arabic musicians Maryem Tollar and Roula Said.

For newcomers to Toronto, the library is much more than a place to borrow books—it’s the connection point to job and settlement services, a place to build language skills, and a space to learn about recreational and cultural programs. It’s a community hub.

“Libraries are the one place where newcomers can find everything they need,” says Elsa Ngan, multicultural services specialist for Toronto Public Libraries, at Tuesday night’s welcome event. Along with musical performances, the evening offered story time for kids and an information fair to help new residents get acquainted with settlement and cultural services across the city.

Toronto libraries have long offered programs and services to help newcomers settle into their new city. They host ESL classes, resumé-building workshops, and offer books, movies, and newspapers in dozens of languages.

But with the recent intake of Syrian refugees to Toronto, libraries have added a number of new services to ease the adjustment process even more.

For instance, the MAP (Museum and Arts Pass) offers newcomers a package of free passes to museums and attractions across the city, including the AGO, the Ontario Science Centre, the Museum of Inuit Art, the City of Toronto Historic Sites, The Toronto Zoo, and the ROM. Regular MAP passes are available to anyone with a library card—you simply borrow it like you would a book, and it gives two adults and up to five kids access to a museum or gallery, for example. The pilot program, specifically for Syrian newcomers, offers families vouchers for one of the participating venues of their choice.

“We encourage people to check out some of the cultural institutions in Toronto and really give them a chance to explore the culture in the city through the museums and other things that are available to them,” says Brian Francis, manager of programming and customer engagement.

TPL has also expanded its Arabic, Armenian, and Kurdish collections to better serve the latest wave of newcomers to the city. Seven branches have Arabic collections, three have Armenian collections, and one has Kurdish.

At 14 branches, settlement workers are on-site to offer newcomers help finding jobs, learn English, navigate the settlement process, and assist in getting a driver’s licence, among other services.

“The library is a safe space for newcomers to be welcome, to use the library for their employment needs, for their personal needs, and to keep connect with other families,” says Ngan.

Certainly, Tuesday’s event was a testament to that. After the music died down, families mingled in the lineup waiting for their first Toronto library cards, as kids tinkered with instruments and chased each other around the room.

“This was amazing,” a man named Hussain, a husband and father of three from Syria, said about the event–all of which he captured on his smartphone. “We sang, we got our cards, we met friends.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article said that through the MAP pilot program, newcomers receive vouchers for all participating venues, which is not accurate—they receive vouchers that gives them access to one of the participating venues. It also said TPL offers newcomer children homework assistant, and while library settlement workers do provide a number of services, homework is not one of them. Torontoist regrets the error.