Libraries welcome newcomers with open arms

Photo by Enockson, Flickr

Language barriers and social isolation are among several factors newcomers may experience as they settle in their new environment. Local libraries have developed programs tailored to those needs, such as language clubs and referral services. Libraries in Surrey, Burnaby and Coquitlam offer outreach programs such as interactive ESL and volunteer programs to help them navigate their new community.

In hopes of providing support for newcomers, the Government of B.C. created NewToBC services in 2014, bringing the community an active outreach program called the Library Champions Project. The project in now funded by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). In partnership with several libraries around Metro Vancouver, including the Surrey library, this initiative is an outlet for Canadian immigrants who want to help their peers.

According to Branka Vlasic, Library Champions Project Trainer, there have been 14 cycles in Surrey with the next on Sept. 15.

“Basically, after four training sessions champions outreach in their communities, connecting with newcomers and providing information about library and community services,” says Vlasic.

The first training entails the experience of a newcomer in order to identify issues, questions and communication skills. The second training provides library program information to the trainee so they can offer the adequate program to each newcomer. Vlasic says that since the new library champions may have difficulty presenting, public speaking skills are addressed in the third session. Finally in the fourth session, participants learn about community resources and how to do outreach effectively since they will be on their own after they complete their training.

Looking back on her time as a facilitator, Vlasic describes her experience as lucky and lovely.

“I’m really lucky because I get to meet people who really accomplish things in their lives and then they come here and they want to do something in order to help others, in order to feel like they want to belong and make a home out of this country for themselves. So, it’s really enriching for me personally to be part of the process for each one of them,” she says.

Jenny, a participant of the previous cycle, speaks about her experience.

“Overall, I think it’s a wonderful thing to say that it’s uniquely designed. You would never know the library would offer that much to new immigrants,” she says. “I think the program is wonderful.”

Lila, another participant, also expressed her enthusiasm for the program.

“The duration of the program is three months – it’s short. Because it happens so fast, it makes the session entertaining and meaningful and you do not want it to end,” she says.

Lila applauds the program for being very accommodating to her needs. In spite of being a newcomer with a basic level of English, her husband is invited to stay during the training to assist with Lila’s English. She says her peers have been very welcoming and compassionate towards her.

English chit chat at Burnaby library

For Burnaby Public Library, the ESL conversation circle has been one of the important support systems for language besides their large collection of ESL books. Deb Thomas, Deputy Chief Librarian at the Bob Prittie Metrotown branch, explains the logistics of this service.

The ESL Conversation Circles do not teach English, they are not language classes but places for people learning English to practice speaking the language in facilitated conversation, says Thomas.

Library Champions Book Club members at the Coquitlam Library. | Photo by Jay Peters

“We ( give people ) a chance to practice,” she says. “So, they’ll pick a topic and then everybody talks about that topic.”

All English levels are welcome and people can support each other through their own level of English. Thomas adds that the conversation also gives the participants an opportunity to socialize and familiarize themselves with people and the area around them, as there are also activities held outside the library.

“It’s also a way for people to know other newcomers in the area. So it’s a social thing as well,” she says.

Reading fun at Coquitlam library

Another ESL service has been thriving at the Coquitlam City Centre branch since 2014: Library Champions Book Club. Participants meet once a month to discuss a particular topic in the book that is introduced to everyone at the start of each month.

Janice Williams, the club facilitator, is enthusiastic about her job and says the goal is to create open conversations on different topics in classic and Canadian books.

“And it’s to try and encourage them to give their opinion about the story, ask questions. If it’s a Canadian-themed story, I might ask them ‘What was it like in your home country? Would this be a common topic in your home country or not?” asks Williams.

The conversation also gives rise to a social atmosphere that Williams thinks will benefit newcomers.

“I like to think that it gives them the opportunity to meet in a social setting – to get used to that – to also offer up their point of view,” says Williams.

Although held at the Coquitlam branch, the book club wasn’t part of the library budget. The program started through a grant from the Tri-Cities Literacy Committee for the first year then the library provided a budget for the ESL Book Clubs.

Williams likes seeing people who enjoy the activity as much as she does. She really feels there is progress in the members’ level of English and confidence.

“I’m really pleased that there are still some of the early members coming to the book club. That means they’re still getting a lot out of it,” she says.

For more info on the NewToBC programs, please visit