I've heard many people say, "It must be hard to immigrate to a new country." As most of us are the children or grandchildren of immigrants, we've heard the stories. I know for instance that my Finnish grandparents refused to speak Finnish when they arrived, as English was the language of the Canadian Prairies. They came to Canada for the promise of land and a more prosperous future.
But now try to imagine what it would be like if you had not come here out of choice, but instead had been forced to leave your country because of conflict or persecution. Immigrant and refugee are not synonymous terms. Refugees not only have to come to terms with past injustices, but they also have to face integration issues, which are often compounded by linguistic, religious and racial differences.
One way to ease integration is to provide Canadian newcomers with a platform to tell their stories. Storytelling not only helps the host country to better understand the refugee experience, but it also gives the host country an idea of where resources are best allocated to meet their needs.
The Life Stories Project, the YWCA and Mapping Memories are just finishing a 10-week training workshop so that seven newcomers, six women and one man, can do just that--tell their stories. Participants had to be open to learning new skills in video, photography, sound recording and mapping, be between the ages of 20 to 26, identify with the "refugee experience," and be willing to share their life stories with a wider audience.The stories produced in this workshop will become part of a book and DVD that will be used in schools and community centres to help raise awareness about the challenges newcomers face in adapting to a new country.
I recently sat down with Rania Arabi of the Immigrant Women's Project and Leadership Services at Montreal's YWCA to talk to her about this fascinating project. She has been working together with the main project facilitator, Elizabeth Miller. A native of Palestine, Rania told me that as a former newcomer to Canada, she is well-acquainted with the integration process. She is now married to a Quebecer and the mother of a two-and-a-half year old son. Her own experience helps to facilitate conversation and reassures the participants of what their lives could one day be.
I was interested in finding out some general information about the participants, so I asked about their countries of origin.
"We have people from the Congo, Rwanda, Palestine, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia," said Rania (See photo of participants above).
We spoke at length about the difficulties often faced by the second generation of refugees, particularly by young women, when the religious and cultural background of the parents are at odds with the mainstream culture of the host country.
"This is why participants have to identify with the refugee experience. That means that the participants are either refugees themselves or one of their family members has left their country of origin as a result of conflict or persecution," said Rania.
As for any specific details about the participants, I was just going to have to wait to hear it from the participants themselves in the weeks ahead. I can't wait...
For further information about this project, please contact
Elizabeth Miller at Concordia University or
Rania Arabi at the YWCA