In the Middle East, hospitality is among the region’s chief virtues. One can easily get a taste of such hospitality by walking into the Middle Eastern Friendship Centre (the Centre) in Surrey. Located near the Gateway Skytrain station, the Centre serves all residents of the Lower Mainland by providing a venue for anybody interested in making connections through Middle Eastern culture, independent of ethnicity, age or religion.
Easing the way for others
Adel Masoud founded the Centre in 2009 and is currently acting as its president. Masoud came to Canada from Kuwait with his family in 1997, not knowing anybody and barely speaking English.
“I went through really difficult times,” he says. “This Centre exists so that people can have an easier time than I did. We worked for nine years to establish this Centre. It has been my dream for a long time.”
The Centre provides many services, including a library filled with books in Arabic, Farsi, English, and other languages; plus resume, tax return and citizenship workshops that take place on a regular basis. ESL and Arabic classes, translation and various other services are offered as well.
Although the Centre was established to help make the transition to Canadian life easier, it is also open to people who have lived in Canada for a long time.
“It is not only newcomers that visit us in the Centre,” Adel remarks. “We receive many visitors who are established in Canada.”
Mahmoud Giratalla is such a visitor; now a retired engineer, he has been in Canada for more than 40 years.
“I met good people here and I started coming day after day. Now I am worried that I come too much!” he says, bursting into laughter.
For Giratalla, family issues were the most difficult part of his move.
“First, you leave your own family. I still miss my brothers and sisters, and when my parents died, I was not able to attend their funeral. That was heartbreaking. Second, the family you form here has a different structure than the one you could have had back there. In my culture, the families are strongly cohesive. That does not exist here,” he says, looking wistful. “I feel like I have found a new family in this Centre.”
When asked about the good experiences he has had here, Giratalla brightens up.
“Oh, I have had many. The greatest part of moving to a new land is the discovery. I liked discovering this new culture.”
Finding strength in community support
For both Masoud and Giratalla, the foremost difficulty of integration was finding a job. Masoud had a harder time than Giratalla.
“When you go out looking for a job, they ask you for ‘Canadian experience.’ How am I going to get Canadian experience when it is a requirement for getting a job?” wonders Masoud.
Masoud considers himself lucky to have found an employer who had the right attitude.
“In my first job, the company partly paid for my ESL classes. That was really helpful for me. I wish more employers did things like that,” he says.
Almost all of the services in the Centre are provided by skilled volunteers. Hannah Atoui, a volunteer for the Centre, helps with translations, administrative issues like obtaining a social insurance number and other practical matters, such as advice on purchasing furniture. Atoui had a hard time integrating into the workforce too. He came to Vancouver from Lebanon 20 years ago, and he spent three years without a job. Before coming, he worked as a speech therapist, but this experience counted for nothing here, and he was asked to start his education from the beginning. He worked in several jobs unrelated to his expertise, ending up as a security guard and supervisor.
“Retraining is difficult at my age,” says Atoui with a laugh. “I have not had any issues in integrating socially though; I find Canadian people very friendly and helpful.”
The Centre, which operates on donations, is open four days a week and offers all of its services for free. All cultures are welcome to visit for a cup of tea or coffee, or to attend the workshops and the monthly potluck.
For more information about the Middle Eastern Friendship Centre, visit