Former immigrant, Beba Svigir, is behind the hard work to improve new immigrants’ lives

Beba Svigir had a difficult experience immigrating to Canada. But she’s been able to use that adversity to help make other female immigrant’s experiences easier. Now Svigir is head of one of the biggest immigration support groups in the city.

Nineteen years ago, Svigir fled her home of the former Yugoslavia, with her husband and two sons due to theconflict during the 1990s. Svigir says immigration is a traumatic experience because you have to cope with losing everything and begin a new life at a time that may not be appropriate, but that cannot be changed.

Nevertheless, Svigir says the first experience of arriving in a new country is “just relief that you finally found a home, if you are fleeing any kind of conflict and that you want to find a place for your children to be safe and achieve their goals and dreams. But after that honeymoon, you really start thinking about the future, the future for your children, the future for yourself, for your professional aspirations.”

“For every child and the mother that we support, we make sure she achieves some kind of result sooner that we could 20, or 30 or 40 years ago.”         – Beba Svigir

According to Svigir the first generation of immigrants always pay a very high price, because they arrive in a new environment with limited resources. That makes it hard for immigrants to achieve the level of financial independence they need to live a comfortable life.

But during those hardships, both in Canada and abroad, Svigir says it was her children that inspired her not to give up. Svigir says she measures the quality of her immigration experience by being able to take her children out of harms way and to find a safe home where they can grow and develop into positive human beings that will contribute to society.

Now she is trying to improve the experience of other immigrants as the chief executive officer at the Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association (CIWA), a non-profit organization that provides support for women immigrants and families.

Svigir is in her tenth year of being CEO. Since first taking the position, the association has grown from being a small organization to having nearly $10 million in funding. With a total of 23 funders including the federal, provincial and municipal governments as well as the United Way of Calgary and Area, CIWA is able to provide 40 different support programs for immigrants. With over 160 staff members who speak 40 different languages, they are able to serve thousands of clients each year.

Describing how the association works, Svigir says “the beauty of this holistic approach is that once [an immigrant] enters CIWA, we help them identify what additional services they need. We connect them to those services and that’s that trust and reliability that our clients receive from us and they feel that CIWA is a place to come because they [are helped].”

Through CIWA’s healthy level of funding, they are able to provide a variety of services for the female immigrants who come through their doors. Many of the staff at CIWA have had their own immigration experience and they use those experiences to provide better opportunities for new immigrants.

“So many of our programs have been inspired… by somebody’s personal experience, or somebody’s family member’s personal experience, so that we change things for the better because somebody else had to suffer for whatever reasons,” says Svigir. “For every child and the mother that we support, we make sure she achieves some kind of result sooner than we could 20, or 30 or 40 years ago.”

The editor responsible for this article is Ashley Grant, agrant@cjournal.ca