Former banker finds fulfillment helping refugees start anew

During his long banking career, Paul Clarke would say his job was to help people’s dreams come true. And now as executive director of Action Réfugiés Montréal, a faith-based charitable organization working on behalf of refugees and asylum seekers, it is his job to “try to make the nightmares go away.”

Clarke, who will be 58 this month, took a circuitous route to refugee ministry. His plan was to go to theology school after university and become a Catholic priest. But life can gets in the way of plans: He got a summer job in 1979 at the TD Bank – and never left. He married and had four sons and a 33-year career with the bank that began in his native Aylmer and eventually took him to Montreal’s suburbs and downtown.
When he and his family settled on the West Island in 2002, Clarke became involved with Cedar Park United Church in Pointe Claire. In the areas of social justice and helping refugees, “my eyes were opened in joining the United Church,” he said in an interview. “By fluke or the hand of God,” he became involved in the church leadership.
He served in various capacities at the TD Bank, later TD Canada Trust – including manager of five or six branches of the bank. One was the branch at Guy and Ste-Catherine Sts., where “every day I met refugees, became aware of refugee issues, of refugees as people and what they were fleeing,” he recalled.
He encouraged his staff to ask what these people had done in their home country. “These are people with a story, who can contribute to Canada,” he would tell them. “And to the refugees, I would say, ‘Welcome to Canada.’ I might have been the only person to do that.”
One evening in 2005, Clarke attended an event at the Dix Milles Villages store in Pointe Claire, where he met a volunteer from Action Réfugiés Montréal (ARM) selling phone cards intended for asylum seekers and refugee claimants detained by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) at its Immigration Holding Centre in Laval. The onetime medium-security prison houses mainly men, but also women and children, detained by the CBSA for administrative reasons – often because they lack proper identification documents.
When he received a tax receipt for his donation to the program, he saw that the organization’s office at the time was in the same building as the bank he managed; a few days later, he realized that the organization was a bank client.
Fast forward to the autumn of 2012, when Clarke found himself out of work. He was 54. “The day that happened,” he recalled, “I was with one of my sons and he said, ‘Dad, you should try to find a job at an NGO. There’s one out there that can use your skills – and you will probably be happier than you ever were at the bank.'”
It happened that the Action Réfugiés executive director’s job was open – founding director Glynis Williams had moved on after 18 years  – and he applied. Although he had no work experience in advocacy or fundraising, Clarke did have church experience: ARM’s core funding comes from the Anglican Diocese of Montreal and the Montreal Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church, and members of the hiring committee were connected to people he knew through his church and social justice work. He got the job.
At the bank, part of Clarke’s work was trying to sell customers on products from mortgages to credit cards. Of his role with Action Réfugiés, he said: “One of the things I bring here is that notion of saying ‘I have a product. The product happens to be helping refugees. If you want to help refugees come to Canada and benefit from rights to which they are entitled, please support us because we are going to help them in a direct fashion.’”
The organization’s mandate is threefold: One is to assist people detained in the immigration holding centre, where the average stay is about 28 days, with everything from legal information and moral support to basics like soap and toothpaste. Often they leave home quickly and the phone cards mean they “can call home and say ‘I am alive,'” said Clarke. Action Réfugiés Montréal is among dozens of organizations helping Montrealers to sponsor family members who are refugees and assisting them once they arrive, and it operates a program that twins accepted female refugee claimants with local volunteers.
Last September, when images of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy whose little body washed up on Turkish shores, galvanized public attention “and every media outlet in the world wanted to talk about refugees, they called here … because of the groundwork we had done of reaching out to media,” said the bilingual Clarke.
Personal donations almost tripled over the previous year and contributions from corporations and foundations – these included the Fondation du Grand Montréal and the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation – nearly doubled. (Except for two summer positions, the organization gets no government funding.) The organization was able to increase its staff – full-time equivalent positions went to 5.2 from 2.8 – and do more. 
These days, Clarke is less stressed and happier than he ever was at the bank – just as his son said he would be. “In the bank, almost every day someone was complaining about something. Here you’re helping people … and it is always a pleasure to come to work.”
He acknowledges that he would never have left his bank job on his own – and that he has taken a considerable pay cut. “Could I have a fancier car or take more trips? Sure. But compared with my clients struggling on welfare and to bring relatives from war-torn areas, we see how privileged we are,” he said.
“At my church, at the beginning of the service we are asked to put our hands on our lap and think of what our hands have done in the past week to help others or to make the world a better place. Working at Action Réfugiés, there is never a lack of things to be reminded of.”
A symbolic 1-km walk will take place in downtown Montreal on Saturday to celebrate World Refugee Day, which is June 20. Everyone is welcome. Organized by Action Réfugiés Montréal, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Montreal City Mission, the walk begins at 1 p.m. at the YMCA Residence at 4039 Tupper St. (Atwater métro) and ends in front of St-James Montréal, at 1439 Ste-Catherine St. W., where the ARM office is. People are invited to assemble at 11:30 a.m.

Published on: June 16, 2016 by Susan Schwartz, MONTREAL GAZETTE.