Reno with a cause

June 15, 2023 | News | Volume 27 Issue 12
Madalene Arias | Eastern Canada Correspondent
The home Cathy Abbott shares with refugees in Waterloo, Ontario. (Supplied photos)

Cathy Abbott remembers the preacher’s phrase that got her to consider taking a big step toward providing shelter for refugees arriving in Canada.

It was 2015 and Canadians were learning about the Syrian refugee crisis. The conflict had pushed millions of people to camps in neighbouring countries, with millions more displaced internally.

The Canadian government ultimately helped resettle more than 25,000 Syrian refugees between November 2015 and February 2016.

As Abbott recalls, Chris Stevens, who served as pastor at Waterloo Mennonite Brethren at the time, asked the congregation who among them was rich enough to make a difference.

She recounts him talking about people who make $40,000 saying that if they made $80,000 they would be okay and people making $80,000 thinking maybe $100,000 would be enough.

Eventually, Stevens told the congregation that if their vehicle was in a garage, that vehicle was better housed than 90 percent of the world’s people. That hit her.

“Okay,” Abbot thought to herself. “I can do something.” She would open her home to newcomers. That would lead to a more bold step later.

She had lived alone since her husband died in 2012. She had room in her home, so she joined the Open Homes program, a church-initiated effort that involves people hosting refugees in their homes for three to six months, on average.

Between 2015 and 2019, Abbott hosted a young woman from Colombia, another young woman from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and then two families from Colombia.

By the fourth year, Abbott felt it was time for a change. While she wanted to continue to help refugees, the day-to-day reality of hosting had become overwhelming.

She decided to convert her home into a duplex and offer one suite to refugees.

“I happen to live on a nice street with a park across the street and a public school about a half a block away, so I thought, why am I wasting this space when it could be used for a family?” she recalls.

From December 2019 to June 2020, contractors converted her basement into a separate unit, complete with a kitchen, separate entrance, three bedrooms and a washroom.

Abbott was able to rent out the space to a new family as soon as it passed the city’s inspection. She charges just over $1,000 for the unit, less than half the average rent of a two-bedroom apartment in Waterloo.

“It just gives them a little bit of time to get on their feet,” says Abbott.

“I find that it helps me too,” she says. Because she lives alone, she appreciates being able to call on her renters if she needs to.

Abbott also serves as chair to the Compass Refugee Centre, which often makes referrals to the Open Homes program she once participated in.

Currently, the centre is looking after approximately 2,000 cases, with the assistance of four caseworkers. She says the need for refugee services has not slowed down. It is difficult to keep up.

“If I could convince more people to try this, then we’d probably have less of a housing problem for a lot of people,” she says. 

Do you have a story idea about Mennonites in eastern Canada? Send it to Madalene Arias at

The home Cathy Abbott shares with refugees in Waterloo, Ontario. (Supplied photos)

Cathy Abbott’s home during renovations.

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