World Refugee Day: A time to reach out

Photo courtesy of Women4Women

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), a world-wide record of 65.3 million people are currently displaced from their homes by wars, persecution, violence or poverty. To shine a light on this urgent problem, the UNHCR will observe the World Refugee Day on June 20 for the 16th time since its founding.

Last year, Canada ranked second on a list of countries sorted by refugee settlement. BC welcomed 1938 government-assisted Syrian refugees since November 2015 and more continue to arrive according to the Immigrant Services Society of BC. Before the influx of Syrian refugees, BC welcomed an average of 1664 refugees per year, the majo

rity originating from countries like Syria, Iraq, Iran, Eritrea and the Somali Republic.

The Surrey English Learner Language Welcome Centre is one of the many refugee organizations active in the Lower Mainland. The centre provides newcomers with English classes and settlement services.

“The first weeks after arrival, refugees live in a government-supported welcome house where they learn basic things about money, housing and transportation. After this period, the refugees are placed in assisted housing and connected to a settlement centre,” says Meredith Verma, assistant manager of the English Learner Language Welcome Centre.

Diverse backgrounds

Jars of Xidig, a traditional Somali sauce sold at the White Rock’s Farmer Market | Photo courtesy of Women4Women

It makes a big difference whether a refugee comes from a town without any facilities or from a city with schools, banks and a procedural infrastructure.

“The families who have come from Syria mostly come from the bigger cities [and] have had education and jobs there, while some families from African countries lived for years in a refugee camp. These families might not understand concepts like banking, bureaucracy and some values that are ‘normal’ for us Canadians,” says Verma.

20 years ago, Surrey started to receive many families from Kenya, Eritrea and Congo. A lot of these families consisted of a mother and her children, with their fathers missing or killed in war violence.

“Some women had lived so long in a refugee camp that they couldn’t read or write. And if you don’t have this first learners capacity, then it is extremely hard to develop second language capacity. A lot of the moms could only reach a very basic level of English,” says Verma.

Verma decided to help this group of ‘lost’ women.

“They told me they want their kids to be proud of them, and they wanted to get off government assistance after being in Canada for ten years,” she says. “They were getting frustrated.”


Cooking, a first step towards better integration. | Photo courtesy of Women4Women

Together with Caroline Brear and three of her friends, Verma founded the charity Women4Women to help women that are illiterate and unable to find a job in Canada.

“These women are the forgotten immigrants. If we wouldn’t help them, they could maybe never come off government assistance,” says Brear.

Women4Women started with helping a group of 10 Somali women, who are now selling a traditional Somali sauce called ‘Xidig’ at the White Rock Farmer’s’ Market.

(The names of the women mentioned have been changed to protect their identity.)

One of the Somalian woman, Nadifa, came to Canada with her two sons and two daughters after living for 14 years in a Kenyan refugee camp nearby Nairobi.

“I was so lucky to come to Canada. Our refugee camp was dangerous because there was a lot of violence and abuse caused by local people. We lived with whatever we had, and that was not much,” she says.

There was no option of going back to Somalia. After first being torn apart by tribal wars, the country now faces a challenge from Al-Qaeda aligned Al-Shabab insurgents. Another woman of the group, Amina, still remembers how she felt the first weeks after her arrival in Maple Ridge.

“I was the only African in the whole neighbourhood, and I was so scared to go outside. My youngest son continuously tried to run away; he was running back to the refugee camp,’ says Amina.

In these first years, they got a lot of support from settlement workers. The culture shock was big.

“I was in a shop to buy medicine and my friend used a credit card to pay. I never saw someone paying with a card. I was so surprised to see him swiping a card through the machine,” says Nadifa.

Amina had the biggest surprise when her young son stepped into an elevator.

“The elevator doors closed and I thought I would never see my son back again! All these first experiences were very strange,” she says.

These women are happy to use their cooking talents and earn some money for themselves on the market.

“Every refugee should be supported to use his or her talents in their new home country. When I cannot work, I feel stressed and sick. Now I can be self-sufficient and sell my own products,” says Nadifa.

World Refugee Day is observed on Tuesday June 20 and refugee organisations of the Lower Mainland will organize special activities on this day.