There are two kinds of people who walk through the door of the Africa Centre, according to executive director Tesfaye Ayalew: refugees and immigrants. And there’s one key difference in how he understands them. “I see refugees as people who have lost hope before coming here,” Tesfaye says. “They had no dream of going somewhere. But because of war, famine or anything else, they were forced to leave.” Whereas immigrants, he says, tend to be full of hope — for a new job, new education and new opportunities.
Understanding the needs of different groups has been key for the Africa Centre since it first opened its doors in 2007. As the first pan-African centre of its kind in North America, the centre provides services for communities from all across the African continent. Most of its programming focuses on children and youth, from early-learning activities to cooking classes, but always with a holistic approach that involves the entire family. The centre also hosts conversation cafés, which give different groups the ability to share their stories in a public forum. “People ask me why we’re able to make more of an impact than other [organizations],” Tesfaye says. “It’s because we listen.”
Tesfaye welcomes any chance for a city to engage its citizens, but he wants to make sure that the process is equally accessible to all groups. “The devil is in the details. It’s in how we implement it,” he says. “I think the willingness is there, but we also have to put resources behind it to make it happen. Even within one culture, not everyone is the same. Now bring into the mix different cultures, different ethnicities and the same old engagement processes will not give us what we want.”