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They came here as immigrants. Now, they’re giving back by leasing a huge property to the city to house refugees

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.

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