This week I had the pleasure of meeting three volunteers who are working as Friendship-Based Mentors for newcomers through the Community Connections program. Maureen, Janice and Connie, jointly mentor a family who is new to Canada and now living here in Abbotsford.
It all started three years ago when, after hearing about the hardships of many recent refugees, these friends were moved to do something supportive in their own community. They got in touch with ACS’ Community Connections and chatted with Andrea, the program supervisor, about how to get involved. For these ladies the idea of working together as a mini-community to support a single family felt practical and manageable, especially taking into consideration the life demands they were already balancing.
“Andrea was so helpful and collaborative!” Janice said. “She really supported and encouraged our idea to work together as long term volunteers to this family,” mentioned Connie. Each woman came ready to serve and brought her experience and expertise to collaboratively support the family. “I do feel that it is very important for those volunteers that are choosing to work with vulnerable populations to clearly exhibit emotional competence, empathy as well as healthy boundaries prior to starting this type of work.” Maureen mentioned. “What we did not anticipate is that this family would teach us more than we would teach them.” Janice added.
The family they were matched with fled war and unrest in their home country of Syria, leaving a close-knit community, extended family, successful business and beautiful home. When they arrived in Canada, they were confronted with a completely new culture, language,community and circumstance. For example, this family of seven (soon to be eight) has gone from living in a large house to now living in a small, two-room apartment which can hardly contain them all. The adversity they have faced is great, but somehow their resiliency is greater. “Despite the challenges they face daily, they are nothing but happy and joyful.” Janice mentioned “It blows me away!”
“More than anything they have taught us what is truly important, and that is community. In their minds, if you have family, you have everything.” The ladies agreed. “We are greeted with warmth, openness, and joy every time we visit.”
While the children still deal with the after-effects of wartime trauma, they have applied themselves to school and done their best to adapt to a new learning environment and new friends. They have big dreams and aspirations and they know that in order to get ahead they will need to work hard and learn fast. Their parents have also had to quickly adapt to a new environment and find new ways of supporting their family. The father has started a new business in Canada and is also doing odd jobs to make extra money. The language barrier has been a challenge, but all of the family members have been dedicated to learning English quickly in order to be successful in Canada. Maureen, Janice, and Connie, who collectively have backgrounds in social work, group facilitation and the not-for-profit sector, have been very impressed by the determination of this strongly knit family.
That being said, the family still faces many barriers. “This community offers a lot,” says Maureen. “Sports programs, activities for children, English classes, and recreational clubs. However there are certain barriers in being a new Canadian. The children are not often able to attend these activities due to transportation issues. It is also hard for the mum to bring one child to an event,” (using public transportation) “while still caring for the other six.”
The transportation barrier the family deals with seems to affect a lot of activities, from getting to medical appointments to enjoying the natural beauty of our province. “It breaks my heart that this family has been in Canada three years and up until this point has been unable to travel outside Abbotsford to witness the natural beauty of our province,” Janice expressed. “It would benefit them all to be able to see the local natural attractions.” At present there is not programming in place or low-cost travel opportunities available to make this happen.
“We have acted as advocates for some the children in school when their needs were not being met properly,” reports Janice, “but being that we are only friends and mentors, we do not have the ability to have much of a impact on their school experience. It is also hard to know exactly why some of the children are being supported and others are not. Unfortunately, trauma can have very real effects on learning.”
Housing is another barrier. “The fact of the matter is, a family of eight needs more living space,” mentions Connie. Unfortunately, they do not currently have other options. “I always think of how the kids would benefit from a yard, and yet they never complain.”
When asked how this experience has changed them, Connie remarked that when we get out of our comfort zone and interact with real people, we are changed. “We get to see life through their eyes.” Maureen added that face-to-face human experience opens our eyes to the real people in our midst. “The refugees in our community have experienced a very harsh reality. When all you have seen is scarred by war, everything else is a walk in the park.” And for this family, even the trials of living in a small apartment and adjusting to a new country are comparatively easier than their reality back home in Syria.
Connie feels that by interacting with different cultures. we learn to recognize the giftings of those cultures. We also discover commonalities such as universal moral and ethical standards like honesty, work ethic and respect. She said that, “when people from other countries bring these assets to our country it helps us!”
“The biggest takeaway for me has been in how I understand joy,” expressed Janice. “This experience has opened my eyes to the fact that we live in a very consumer-driven society. Many Canadians measure happiness by what they have; this family does not. They find joy in things we have to be taught. In just being, living in the moment, and loving their family. Even with so much stuff, we seem to be in need of joy. Many explore yoga, spirituality and travel, looking for a depth of life experience or that piece of the puzzle that they think they are missing. This family has taught me to just love the moment, live the moment and concentrate on what truly matters.”
Together, these ladies are a great team. They have been able to use their practical experience and expertise in their former fields of work to problem-solve and work collaboratively with the refugee family to address issues and barriers. “It has been amazing having group support,” They shared.
As the three have worked together, they have jointly brainstormed different ways of supporting the family. “When we work as a team we are able to offer better support as we bring with us different ideas and ways of looking at an issue,” says Connie. “We have also appreciated Andrea’s direction. If we have questions or concerns they are addressed. We have felt empowered and supported. She needs recognition. She has developed volunteer culture that we are proud to be a part of.” This is a community of volunteers that take time to step outside of their comfort zones and meet others where they are at, listen to and support them.
“Human beings are human beings. We all could try to show more respect for our fellow man and what others have been through,” Maureen says.
“Bottom line, we all have a story. I would encourage everyone to get involved in some way, as we welcome newcomers into our community,” Janice adds.“This type of volunteer experience is very meaningful. It opens your mind to learn and see the realities of life through someone else’s eyes. Love goes further than anything else.”