Offering a warm welcome
Starting a new life in a new country can be a scary prospect — particularly when that move involves learning a new language and many strange new customs.
Beyond the communication barrier there are a number of serious challenges that newcomers to Canada face — not least among them, how to find employment and build a fulfilling new life.
“We take for granted what (immigrants and refugees) go through,” said Bob Gabriel, Langley service area manager with Immigrant Services Society of B.C.
“What frame of mind are they in when they get here? That will depend on what they’ve been through,” he said.
“There are mixed emotions, a myriad — fear, or elated. They don’t have to look over their shoulder anymore.
“They’re starting from square one.
“Taking all that into consideration, how do you help these people?” Gabriel said.
ISS, a provincially funded agency which opened its doors in Langley last October, is set up to help new residents settle in to the community, find work and perhaps even make a few new friends along the way.
The Langley office, located on Logan Avenue, employs nine people — most of whom are counselors who also immigrated to Canada — helped out by a number of volunteers.
Gabriel, who arrived in B.C. from Grenada in 1979, understands the hopes and fears that his clients experience.
“I identify with exactly what they are going through. I was very fortunate that English was my first language, otherwise, I don’t know,” he said with a laugh.
But unlike Gabriel, who had a career as a banker on the Caribbean island, many ISS clients have come to Canada after fleeing terrible circumstances and with limited skills.
Although the agency has only been in Langley for the past six months, it can trace its roots back to Vancouver in 1972, when it was formed to help Ugandan refugees in B.C. who had fled the military dictatorship of Idi Amin.
From there, ISS began providing services to refugees and immigrants in the Tri Cities, Burnaby, Richmond and Surrey.
In Langley, staff work in collaboration with several other agencies, including the board of education, Langley Community Services Society and New Directions, which teaches English as a second language.
“It’s collaborative, co-operative and collective. I stress that because we cannot provide all services, so it makes sense to work together,” Gabriel said.
“Wherever the need is, if we cannot provide (the solution) we’ll refer clients, make appointments . . . we may go with them to translate and explain.”
Karenic, Spanish, Chinese and Korean are among the languages most commonly spoken by newcomers to Langley, although noted that many of the most recent immigrants to the Lower Mainland are coming from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.
Among the staff and volunteers at ISS in B.C. more than 80 languages are spoken in the process of serving 23,000 clients each year in the province.
“We serve one client at a time. It’s not a small job,” said Gabriel.
So it’s important to come at it in a methodical way, he noted. ISS employs a “guided pathway” case management system — similar to triage in a hospital— taking on the most pressing issues, such as food and shelter, first.
Once they’ve settled in, for many of the people Gabriel and his staff work with, finding a job is among the top priorities.
ISS receives its funding through the province’s ministry of jobs, tourism and industry because one of their main objectives is to help newcomers find employment — most often in farming, production, manufacturing and line work.
“It’s areas where you don’t need high academic qualifications, you just have to understand and follow instructions,” Gabriel said.
Most often, Gabriel and his staff are working with people who have been in Canada less than five years, so they begin by explaining what a resumé is and how to create one as well as how to do a job search and prepare for an interview.
They also outline Canadian labour laws to help ensure their clients not taken advantage of by unscrupulous employers.
Beyond shelter and employment, ISS encourages and helps clients to get out into the community.
Through their Community Connections program, they match newcomers with families who are well established, to help them settle in — whether that means accompanying them to the dentist or help them shop, taking them out to community events or teaching them how to use public transit.
The message of Community Connections is that they are welcome here, but it is a two-way street and one day they will be called on to help, Gabriel explained.
“When you get established, that’s what we want you to be like, too,” he said.
“We want to get people feeling like Canada is a welcoming country.”
Immigrant Services Society of B.C.’s Langley office is located at #204 20621 Logan Ave. For more information, go to issbc.org or call 604-510-5136.