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Former Toronto Hydro building becomes refugee shelter, thanks to Iranian-Canadian immigrants

WATCH: Two immigrants who escaped war-torn Iran have purchased a former Toronto Hydro building and have now opened a refugee centre inside. Kamil Karamali reports.

The first and only city-run refugee shelter in Toronto successfully opened its doors Tuesday, with about 20 refugees climbing off a bus and dropping their heavy luggage in their new temporary space — all thanks to Iranian-Canadian immigrants who dished out millions to purchase the former Toronto Hydro building for the cause.

“We wanted to give back to the community because we, as immigrants ourselves, we know the struggles they have when they come to a new country,” said Hamid Ghadaki.

“They’re not used to a new culture.”

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Hamid and his first cousin, Hessam Ghadaki, are part of four families who escaped war-torn Iran in the 1980s and founded the development company, Times Group Corporation, in Canada.

“I was in Grade 3 when I was in Iran and there was a war going on at the time, so I missed most of Grade 3 because schools were closed and then I was put into the Canadian system here,” said Hamid.

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READ MORE: 40% of those in Toronto shelter system are refugees or asylum seekers, new report says

“It was difficult for me in a way. I didn’t know the language, I didn’t know anyone at the school, so coming to a new country can be difficult.”

A couple of decades and many development projects later, the group purchased an 80,000-square-foot former Toronto Hydro building on Yonge Street, north of Finch Avenue, for $122.5 million in early 2018.

Members of the family-run company contemplated what to do with the massive space until they saw a sign — literally.

“It was a couple of months later we saw a notice from the city that they were looking for shelter space to house refugees and newcomers, so we jumped at that,” said Hessam.

“This building would be perfectly retrofitted for that use.”

The cousins said city staff then had a walk-through of the space before signing the deal with Times Group Corporation.

“It just seemed to be the perfect match for us, having a facility that met the specifications that the city was looking for in terms of size, proximity to transit and overall layout,” said Hessam.

READ MORE: More newcomers and refugees are winding up homeless in Canada: studies

The large, multi-room facility may have welcomed 20 refugees on its opening day, but it’s expected to be at capacity by the end of the week, housing more than 200 people.

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The building includes enough beds for 120 female and 80 male occupants, a dining hall, a social hall, several computers, a health clinic and a prayer hall.

The city has contracted out the Homes First Society to handle the day-to-day operations of the shelter.

“They [newcomers] are not used to a new surrounding, how to navigate the city, so if there’s housing available, that’s one thing off your mind and you can focus on getting up off your feet,” said Hamid.

The City of Toronto has said that the number of refugee and asylum claimants coming to Toronto has surged since 2016, especially with migrants who cross into Canada from the U.S.

Canada’s immigration success story
Canada’s immigration success story

City staff said that as of October of this year, approximately 36 per cent of all shelter users in the City’s permanent shelter system were refugee or asylum claimants, with an average of 15-20 new claimants entering the shelter system each day.

The Ghadaki cousins hope the large facility can help ease the burden for the city. With roughly two-thirds of the building being currently used for a shelter, the rest of it sits vacant with the possibility of adding more beds and amenities.

The families also add that the city is paying rent for the space, but their company is bringing in a lot less than it would if it had chosen to use the facility for a business venture.

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The city currently has a two year lease on the building, but the owners are open to extending that contract.

“We’ve actually left that up to the city,” said Hamid.

“If they want to expand the services they’re providing here, that would be great for us.”