When his father immigrated to Canada, there was a lack of opportunities, but Colyn deGraaff, the manager of E-Learning and Communications for the Calgary Immigrant Educational Society (CIES), is working towards creating those opportunities for newcomers in Canada.

deGraaff, born in Calgary, grew up seeing his father struggle to learn a language after arriving at Pier 21 in Halifax in the 1950s.

“My father had difficulty learning English when he was doing school so growing up, he placed a large emphasis on me learning English and very little Dutch because he didn’t want me to have the same experience, so doing the work now there is probably some connection there.”

As a result, deGraaff has not experienced some of the problems that the society he works for aims to solve.

“It’s difficult because I was born here – a lot of people that were born here can’t imagine uplifting their lives and moving to another country. It’s very difficult to talk about myself and diversity without acknowledging the privileges that I’ve received.”

Recognizing the privileges he had growing up, deGraaff was looking for something more challenging and found himself at CIES.

“I was originally involved in high pressure sales before I jumped ship and came into something a bit more personally fulfilling. It was my wife who really hit it home and said ‘you got to do something more personally fulfilling,’ and that’s what led me here.”

CIES is a non-profit charity that has been an integral part of Calgary’s immigrant-serving community since 1998.

deGraaff helps develop in-class and online programming for the society.

“CIES has three pillars of programming that assists immigrants and economically disadvantaged individuals gain a solid foothold in Canada. These pillars are English language, employment training and becoming self-sufficient.”

CIES works closely with Immigrant Services Calgary to assist immigrants when they get to Canada.

“We are really about empowerment for newcomers,” says deGraaff. “It’s not about handouts, it’s about hand-ups and helping.”

He’s proud of the work that the society does, particularly in the accessibility field, which is being improved with new online features rolling out this year.

“We have a large emphasis on accessibility, because there is so much going on in a newcomers life. We want to make sure to be there for them when it works for them. We have a very large volume.”

In fact, according to Statistics Canada, the percentage of Alberta’s immigrant population rose to 17.1 per cent in 2016 compared to 6.9 per cent in 2001.

“We have a very long history,” says deGraaff. “We are happy to offer services and have 75 nationalities that come through our doors every day.”

The society will be celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2018, a year that’s shaping up to be productive and one that deGraaff says “is a big cause for celebration.”



Editor: Paul McAleer | pmcaleer@cjournal.ca

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