Supporting newcomers through storytelling and mentorship

Victoria Foundation grants support the community organizations helping newcomers to Canada establish a sense of belonging.

From language barriers to finding a job or a healthcare provider to grocery shopping, the challenges facing new immigrants are varied. The Victoria Foundation recognizes the importance of helping newcomers establish support systems. Its Community Grants program, the Community Fund for Canada’s 150th grant program and donor-advised grants support numerous organizations working in the Capital Region to assist newcomers to Canada.

Support Networks Make the Difference

For over 35 years, the Anglican Diocese of British Columbia has sponsored refugees from around the world, bringing people to Canada and helping them integrate into Canadian society. In 2015, the Diocese supported the sponsorship of five refugees, but that number soared to over 200 in 2016 due to the Syrian refugee crisis. With the crisis exacerbating the high numbers of refugee claimants worldwide, the Diocese has committed to maintaining the heightened levels of sponsorship. In support of its efforts, the Victoria Foundation provided a $25,000 grant to enable the Diocese to train more than 500 South  Island volunteers.

“There are so many people in Victoria who want to do something,” says Rebecca Siebert, coordinator of the Anglican Diocese’s refugee sponsorship program. “They want to take action and be involved with the solution or response.”

The grant makes it possible to facilitate more training for volunteers and connect them with tools and resources to guide a newcomer’s transition.

“Now we offer training every month instead of once a year,” says Siebert. Training includes areas such as obtaining permanent-resident cards and social insurance numbers, knowing how to help a newcomer communicate with their employer and finding support for expecting mothers. It even extends to the little things many Canadians take for granted, such as figuring out how to navigate higher hydro bills in the winter than in the summer.

“For a refugee to come and have a network at their disposal, to get to know the community and the culture, is massively beneficial compared to people who arrive and have no sense of the society here,” says Siebert. “The volunteers are learning what it’s like to have to restart life…. They’re being involved in it and are feeling the success of the refugee — they feel it personally. It’s a positive story.”

Fostering Success with Business Mentorship

At the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society (VIRCS), one recent project focused not only on helping newcomers settle in and adjust to Canadian society, but also on getting started with a business and using their entrepreneurial skills to further engage in the community. Through the Community Fund for Canada’s 150th, a collaboration between the Victoria Foundation, Community Foundations of Canada and the federal government, the Victoria Foundation granted $15,000 to support an eight-week workshop for 12 immigrants and refugees who were interested in developing their business ideas. Facilitated by Community Micro Lending Victoria, the series of workshops helped participants — some from Syria, some from South America — develop and market their business ideas and get a handle on taxation and licensing requirements.

“The workshops took them from point A to point Z,” says Amarjit Bhalla, program manager of the Skills Connect for Immigrants program at VIRCS. “We got them to where they presented on their idea and had a business plan at the end, taking them all the way through.”

Business ideas included a window-washing service, custom cabinetry and a food truck. Business coaching and mentorship is built into the program to provide ongoing support.

“The Foundation gave us the opportunity to showcase what we can do,” says Bhalla. “It took a kind of chance on us that we’d be able to deliver [this program]. And the response that we got from the program is amazing. I have never seen anything like this happen, where people are lining up to say, ‘When are you running the next program?’”

Sharing Stories to Create a Welcoming Community 

Encouraging newcomers to share their stories is the central theme of I’ve Not Always Been Canadian, an exploratory storytelling project by the Inter-cultural Association of Greater Victoria (ICA), supported by a $15,000 grant through the Community Fund for Canada’s 150th. Newcomers are invited to a series of four forums that explore the theme of belonging and of feeling Canadian.

“We want to hear it all,” says Paulina Grainger, arts and outreach coordinator at ICA. “We don’t want to just do the success story. There are stories like that, for sure, but as we all know, it’s not easy to find yourself in a new country with a different language, a different culture, a different way of being, and leave all your social ties behind.”

Grainger speaks of the difficulty newcomers face in finding work, especially when they are unable to use their professional expertise from back home.

“This material is very sensitive, it’s very complex,” Grainger says. “We have to make sure the people who come through our doors feel safe and feel they can share their stories without judgment, that they can feel they will be listened to in a caring, open way.”

Through theatre exercises and small-group story circles, participants explore both the positive and difficult aspects of moving to Canada, and then share them with the broader group. A local photojournalist is documenting the process, and ICA looks forward to rolling out a series of striking banner portraits in the fall, sharing the workshop participants’ stories with the wider world.

“We’re always grateful to the Victoria Foundation for supporting any of our initiatives,” says Grainger. “They’re validating our mission and mandate and our hope to not only settle newcomers and refugees in this community but also create a more welcoming community.”

Photo Credit: Quinton Gordon

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