The Roma Community Centre’s new space is small, just a couple of offices and desks with a seating area in the front window looking out onto Bloor Street at Lansdowne Avenue.
It isn’t what one might think of with a title of community centre, but Gina Csanyi-Robah, executive director of the RCC, said the move to 1344 Bloor St. W is a big step for the centre and the work they do to help newly arrived and Canadian Roma.
A not-for-profit organization, the RCC was started in 1997 in response to the significant number of Roma refugees coming to Canada from Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
“There was a lot of prejudice, discrimination and misinformation distributed by way of the media and a lot of stereotyping and prejudice from government officials,” Csanyi-Robah explained.
The centre was started as a means of educating non-Roma people and supporting Roma people who had come to Toronto.
That is still what the centre does to this day.
“We try to help within the (Roma) community in terms of education and settlement and help Canadians understand better who we are and the conditions that propel community members to seek asylum in Canada,” Csanyi-Robah said. “The other thing we do is celebrate Roma Culture.”
They host community picnics and music and art events throughout the year and organize celebrations for International Roma Day every April 8.
The RCC was initially located on Springhurst Avenue in South Parkdale within the Culture Link offices, before moving with Culture Link to Dundas Street West and Bloor Street in the Crossways Mall building.
The centre then moved to a ground floor unit in the Crossways Mall building, their first step towards independence, Csanyi-Robah said. They moved into their new Bloor Street location in October.
“We moved out of there because we wanted more of a storefront location, outside of a retail mall and something that felt more like a community space,” she explained. “We have made a step towards our own independence and autonomy here at this office.”
There are easily 3,000 Roma families living in Parkdale, Csanyi-Robah said.
“We are the only Roma centre in Canada so it’s imperative that there is a place that people know they can come to and feel comfortable and welcome,” she said.
People come to the community centre for settlement help – assistance looking for a job, applying for work permits, looking for volunteer positions in the community. They come looking for advice on schools, doctors and lawyers.
“They come here with issues they might have with social services that they might need us to make a call,” she said. “We do a lot of translation and interpretation work over the phone.”
Csanyi-Robah went on to explain they help the community with problems they might have with landlords and housing.
She spends a great deal of time doing public education on why the Roma people have come here and understanding the diversity of the community.
“We did a big hate crime prevention project last year educating people about hate crime,” Csanyi-Robah said.
There are pockets of Roma people everywhere, but Csanyi-Robah said the largest concentrations are in Parkdale and Hamilton. This new location on Bloor Street is very accessible by public transportation.
The organization is 100 per cent volunteer based and is funded through small grants and fundraising initiatives, Csanyi-Robah said. Community partners are what sustain the organization, she explained. The RCC has developed strong relationships with the Toronto Police Service 11 Division, St. Christopher House, Parkdale Legal Services, Parkdale Community Health Centre, Parkdale Intercultural Centre, The Toronto District School Board and the Toronto Catholic District School Board.
“This is how we are supporting the community, by creating this really solid circle which has become a safety net,” Csanyi-Robah said.
The centre is planning an information session for Roma people from around the city to meet all the service providers on Nov. 28. The location is to be determined.