2024 Welcoming Ottawa Ambassadors

Heather Wacyk

A Newcomer’s Remarkable Dedication and Drive

As Heather Wacyk and Panah Khoshmanesh sit in matching lime green armchairs in a back room at The Well, you can feel the warmth of their rapport. 

Originally from Iran, Panah came to Ottawa in July 2022 as a 2SLGBTQ+ refugee. She had two degrees in food technology from Iran. Shortly after graduating from Chef Ric’s free four-month food services training program (run by the Ottawa Mission), she began working as a chef at The Well that December. Heather is her manager.

“Our programs are focused on social inclusion,” explains Heather, who is originally from London, Ontario and started working at The Well six years ago after studying social work at Carleton University. 

“We serve many people who don’t have access to cooking facilities, and some who by leaving their homes, can benefit from the opportunities provided for social interaction,” adds Heather.

She estimates that about half of their clientele, who are precariously housed or homeless, are asylum seekers. “Last winter there were nights where up to 300 people did not have place to sleep in Ottawa. Earlier this week we had 200 people here for lunch.”
Mornings at The Well are for women and gender diverse people, but from 12:30 to 8pm daily, their doors are open to everyone. As an Anglican Community Ministry, Belong Ottawa delivers services including laundry, showers, meals (breakfast and lunch), hygiene supplies, telephone, internet and community navigation support. 

The pandemic and opioid crisis have shone a light on the increasing gaps in much needed inclusive spaces that provide social services. “We are the only type of organization that you hope will go out of business some day.”

As she chats about what an incredible force Panah is, she becomes emotional and says, “Don’t make me cry.” There is a strong bond of mutual admiration between the two women.

“When the Ottawa Mission sent me here for a job interview, I initially did a one-week placement,” remembers Panah. “But after the second day, Heather hired me!” 

“When I started here, Heather encouraged me, in learning English and about cooking,” says Panah. “She trusted me, and I was moved to a higher position as a coordinator at Belong Ottawa at St. Luke’s Table last August.”

“She doesn’t know the important role she has played in my life,” remarks Panah. “Just the small things can make a big difference, like words of praise.” 

Pana speaks Arabic, Persian and Turkish and helps translate for some of the people who access Belong Ottawa’s services. She will soon run a specialized group for newcomer women at The Well. 

Heather has encouraged Panah to think about becoming a social services worker, and to obtain certificates to move forward in her career. On June 27, she will begin working towards a social services certificate and plans to do online courses.

“Getting to know Panah, as much as she has been amazing in the kitchen, I know she has education, experience, drive and tenacity needed to expand her horizons,” adds Heather. “I see so much potential in her and am impressed by her many accomplishments since arriving in Canada only two years ago.”

“In this organization you can grow while we pay people a living wage,” explains Heather. “Even if that means we are just a stepping off point for people like Panah, it is a marker of our success.”

“Belong Ottawa helped me as I needed a job to sponsor my partner to come to Canada,” states Panah. She was overjoyed when he arrived in Canada two days after her sex reassignment surgery. 

“As a LGBTQ person I couldn’t work in my country, but here I have the freedom to do so.” Her partner, who she met over three years ago when they were both refugees in Turkey, now volunteers at The Well.

Panah feels inspired by having a job where in addition to earning a living, she can give back to the community. She dreams of one day helping to building the same type of organization in Iran. 

While delighted to be receiving the Welcoming Ottawa Ambassador award, Heather stresses that she is just in the background. “Panah should be receiving this award,” concludes Heather. “It’s her dedication and drive that really should be rewarded!”