New Friends and Neighbourhood Group offers sense of community for immigrant women

Editor’s Note: Incorrect information was supplied regarding Soyoung Kim’s arrival to Canada. Kim and her family emigrated to Canada nearly 8 years ago, not “this past spring” as was originally stated. The Calgary Journal apologizes for the error.

On the third floor of the pyramid-shaped Fish Creek Library, a group of 16 women are gathered around a table and ready to learn. The first lesson of the day is to always read a contract and understand it before you sign it.

“Who would like to read the first line of the contract?” says Marilee Campbell, program coordinator of the New Friends and Neighbourhood Group at the Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association (CIWA). Campbell is using the media release contract, which states that the participants of the meeting agree to have their picture taken as a teaching tool. She proceeds by asking each of the women around the table to read a different sentence of the contract aloud.

“I ___________ hereby authorize The Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association to use, reproduce, and/or publish photos and/or video that may pertain to me – including my image, likeness and/or voice without compensation.

“I understand that this material may be used in various publications, public affairs releases, recruitment materials, broadcast public service advertising (PSAs) or for other related endeavours.

“This material may also appear on the Corporation’s or project sponsor’s Internet Web Page,” quoted the women around the table.

Jane Pollock, the facilitator of the day’s meeting who has been volunteering with the group for the past three years, begins to engage the women about today’s thematic topic of discussion, spring, by handing out a seedling and soil in a cup.

From left to right: Soyoung Kim, Jane Pollock, Rosario Reiley de Marrero, and Silvia Lopez.
Photo by: J Chelsea Barclay
“It’s nice to be able to come in and learn from these women, and know I’m helping them with their English,” says Pollock.

The group meeting today is not the average book club that might meet at the Fish Creek Library every Tuesday afternoon. Soyoung Kim, 45, is one of the 16 women gathered in the room and has been attending the weekly meetings for almost a year.

Kim and her family immigrated to Canada nearly 8 years ago from Korea. Kim majored in Horticulture Science at Sol National University and had been tutoring English and math for more than 10 years before she moved to Canada. Having a high regard for education, Kim wanted to guarantee her two sons a better education than what she had received, therefore, Kim and her husband decided to apply for immigration.

Wanting to improve her English and not knowing anyone in her community of Evergreen, Kim heard about the New Friends and Neighbourhood Group at the public library. Kim says she’s benefited immensely from joining a group like this.

“I like to be able to practice my English and get a better understanding of women from everywhere. There are interesting things going on here and it is fun,” says Kim.

The meetings offer immigrant women a relaxed forum to practice their English and meet new friends in the process. In today’s two-hour meeting we planted our seedlings and played Pictionary to learn different vocabulary related to spring. The group also learned what a contest is, so when they come back with their plants in four weeks’ time they will know what it means when the largest plant wins the contest.

Both Campbell and Pollock say this is a huge incentive for immigrant women to engage and feel comfortable in their new community. The meetings are held between September and June on a weekly basis in 16 different communities around Calgary.

“The reason the program is in different neighbourhoods around Calgary is so hopefully the women are in the group with their neighbours and they know they can go knock on someone’s door if they need a cup of sugar or something,” says Campbell.

“It’s nice to be able to come in and learn from these women, and know I’m helping them with their English.”
—Jane Pollock
Volunteer

Campbell says the association knows it is unrealistic to think they can teach English in less than two hours, but believes it’s a way for the women to activate the English they already know and give them the confidence to try it.

“If the groups do nothing else but help develop friendships I count that as a complete success. It’s really important for the women to get them out of isolation and so they can start to feel like this is home instead of just a place to live.”

Campbell noted a lot of the participants expect to walk into a classroom typesetting and while some of the groups are very academic minded, and want grammar exercises, most of them are just like a bunch of women getting together for a coffee. This type of setting allows the women to talk about whatever is on their mind.

Campbell explained that the dynamic of the group’s conversations vary but the topics usually pertain to:

• How to find a job

• How to find a doctor

• How to learn to drive

• Parenting customs and norms in Canada

• Civic engagement

• The next step in immigration

Campbell says in each group the student’s level of English ranges greatly and that there are no language-specific requirements.

“Sometimes the strongest of speakers will help teach or guide the less strong speakers,” says Campbell.

Rosario Reiley de Marrero, 45, like Kim, wanted her two boys to have more opportunity.. The current economic and political situation in Venezuela only made Reiley de Marrero and her husband’s decision easier.

They applied for a permanent residence visa four years ago to move to Canada. It was just recently processed and they uprooted and moved from Venezuela to Calgary in January.

Reiley de Marrero started attending the meetings in February at the Fish Creek location. She says the meeting allows her to practice her pronunciation while learning and understanding different traditions and customs.

“When I attend the group, sometimes I feel as though I am in the United Nations and an ambassador from Venezuela. Everybody has different opinions and customs and in some way we try to communicate and share these. To me that is very beautiful,” she says.

From left to right: Rushangul Atush, Soyoung Kim, Ji Young Ma, Maria Junca all watch as Najma Queshi tries to get them to guess her spring themed word.
Photo by: J Chelsea Barclay
Kim is starting to feel more comfortable with her English. She has recently started volunteering her time with New Friends and Neighbourhood Group more as a co-facilitator rather than a participant. Kim hopes this experience will help her to pursue the same type of career she had in Korea, or at least a similar field of work, here in Calgary.

“Through these meetings, I realized this type of thing is needed here and I would like to continue the career [as a tutor] I had in Korea but as an ESL teacher in Canada one day,” says Kim.

Today’s group includes women from all around the world including Britain, Mexico, Colombia, Japan, Lithuania and Korea. Campbell believes the women’s favourite part of the meetings is increasing their confidence in their ability to speak English and learning about the different cultures within Canada and within the group itself. Kim, like many of the other participants, agrees.

“Through this group I have met some of my best friends,” says Kim.

jbarclay@cjournal.ca