After crossing continents in search of asylum, immigrants and refugees settle into their new lives with the support of workers who have taken a similar path
Refugees from countries such as Somalia, Sudan, Iraq and, notably, Syria, are finding sanctuary in Canada’s cities after being forced to flee their homelands in search of safety.
The Canadian government estimates that there are 19.5 million refugees around the world. In 2015, our country helped 13,600 people find asylum. This year, Canada is anticipating resettling another 25,000 Syrian refugees alone.
But what does that look like on the ground?
For many newcomers, integration is a long, demanding process. But, it is a process made easier by the support of organizations such as the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, Immigrant Services Calgary and the Calgary Bridge Foundation for Youth.
Additionally, these organizations provide the opportunity for recently arrived Canadians to meet one-on-one with a settlement worker — some who have also taken the journey of a newcomer.
Settling in Calgary
The first stop for many immigrant and refugee families is the St. John’s Reception Centre in our city’s northwest quadrant. Here, the Calgary Catholic School District welcomes newcomers and provides students and their families support in order to become settled into the rhythm of Canadian life.
“When we are looking specifically at the student there are a number of things that take place,” says Karen Ryhorchuk, senior communications specialist at the Calgary Catholic School District. “Depending on where they are coming from, there may be some educational gaps.”
The Calgary Catholic School District has over 150 different interpreters available to help communicate with immigrant families.
“In addition,” says Ryhorchuk, “we know that these students, as well as their families, are coming from areas where they may have experienced trauma.”
At the reception centre, families and students hailing from war-torn countries are connected with an intercultural wellness team comprised of two psychologists and eight family support workers.
While students also undergo an English language assessment, Ryhorchuk says that their families meet with an in-school settlement program worker. The worker connects newcomers to a variety of community organizations — such as Alberta Works, the Calgary Food Bank and the Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association — which helps families find housing, employment and other basic necessities.
Bridging the gap
The Calgary Bridge Foundation for Youth provides in-school settlement program workers to both the St. John’s Reception Centre and also the Kingsland Reception Centre — which is operated by the Calgary Board of Education.
“At the reception centres,” says Umashanie Reddy, executive director of the Bridge, “the Calgary Bridge Foundation for Youth is waiting to embrace the family and provide them with settlement and integration support in the school systems.”
The Bridge’s 31 in-school settlement program workers collectively speak over 25 languages and have served roughly 10,500 families and students since the program’s inception in 2006. The organization also offers afterschool programs for children and workshops about life in Canada.
Many of the foundation’s settlement workers have first-hand experience as newcomers to Canada.
“They have taken the walk as an immigrant, they have taken the walk as a refugee. Hence, they know about the entire journey,” says Reddy.
In their shoes
One such settlement worker with the Calgary Bridge Foundation for Youth is Shimeles Kebede, who immigrated to Canada on Nov. 15, 2005.
Kebede was forced to flee Ethiopia in 1993 due to political persecution. At the age of 22, he was a member of the Addis Adaba University student council and was attending his fourth year of law school.
“I was one of the student leaders who was opposed to an ethnic and language based regionalization policy that the government was implementing,” says Kebede, adding that he and many of his peers feared the new policy would cause a civil war.
On Jan. 4, 1993, Kebede and the student council organized a protest in response to the government’s new policy, as well as lack of democratic practices by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front during the Eritrean referendum for independence. Eritrea, until that time, had been one of Ethiopia’s 14 provinces.
The student body, totaling more than 5,000 people, did not make it 400 metres before being shot at by the Ethiopian police. The violence left one student dead and 200 injured.
Forced to flee
Following the protest, Kebede says three council members were abducted, two were arrested and the remaining students had no other choice but to leave Ethiopia.
He has not been able to return home since.
“It felt like I lost everything,” says Kebede. “Everything you treasure and love, your country, your family and friends, your community. Everything.”
The next seven years of Kebede’s life were spent in Dedaab, a region in Kenya that is home to three refugee camps.
At the time, each camp hosted 50,000 refugees living under shacks built out of plastic tarps. Every person was rationed three kilograms of maize and flour, half a litre of oil and a ladle of salt to last 15 days.
“It was really hard,” says Kebede. “But at the same time I got the opportunity to meet with refugees with different cultural backgrounds, which sharpened my concept of multiculturalism.”
After receiving a scholarship to return to school, Kebede moved to Nairobi to attend the United States International University. Kebede’s application to immigrate to Canada was accepted during his studies.
Building a new life
Once in Calgary, Kebede worked a variety of jobs before joining the Calgary Bridge Foundation for Youth as an in-school settlement program worker in 2008. In 2009, he left the organization for two years to complete his degree in international relations at the University of Calgary.
Kebede returned to his position at the Bridge in 2011 and is stationed at James Fowler High School. He is now a Canadian citizen, married and the proud father of two.
“Five years after I landed here I got my Canadian citizenship, which changed everything,” says Kebede. “After so many years of being stateless I got another country that I can call home, lead a peaceful life and realize my potential in many different ways.”
Part of recognizing his potential is the work Kebede does at the Bridge to help integrate new families into Calgary, which he says gives him great satisfaction and a sense of achievement.
Kebede adds that focusing on youth makes the services provided by the Bridge especially important.
“The success of children and their school lives very much depends on the support that their parents give,” he says, adding that minimal English language skills, developing social skills and financial stress can be challenges for new students and their families.
Students helping students
One Bridge service that Kebede says helps recently arrived students grow accustomed to Canadian classrooms is the Peer Mentors program.
Mana Indriss, who moved to Canada from Kenya with her family in 2014, participates as a mentor with the program at Forest Lawn High School.
Enrolled in Grade 12, Indriss says that she became a peer mentor because she wanted to help new students settle into life in Canada.
“I have been through that,” she says, adding that her transition to Canada was hard, especially because at the time she could not speak English very well.
“I was afraid to talk to people,” Indriss says. Participating in the Bridge after-school programs helped her gain confidence.
Indriss’ confidence has also inspired her to pursue her dream of working for the Calgary Police Service after she graduates. Eventually, she would like to be employed as an RCMP officer.
Additionally, although Indriss has not been back to Kenya, she hopes to one day return and start a program for young people similar to the Calgary Bridge Foundation for Youth.
“That would be really good,” Indriss says.
Thumbnail by Sarah Comber.
- By Sarah Comber