True empathy is the key to immigrant recruitment and retention
By Rany Ibrahim
It is always an exciting event watching a group of newcomers sworn in as Canadian citizens. Behind every person and every family is a great story of perseverance.
These events are more special when they are held at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, a place that has welcomed more than a million immigrants to Canada since 1928. It is a major life event and a true accomplishment to be naturalized into a country like Canada—a country that is proud to support diversity and inclusion, embrace multiculturalism, and treat everybody equally. To those new Canadians I say, “Welcome to Canada.”
It can be very isolating for newcomers when they first arrive in a new community. However, bright stories of exciting initiatives led by newcomers help create a welcoming momentum. One such initiative is a youth group, led by Aya Ali and Ahmed Hamid of the YMCA Centre for Immigrant Programs Youth Action Team, that designed a barrier-breaking event that allowed the community and new Canadians get to know each other. Another is The Mentors Circle, a team of volunteers led by newcomer Anil Rana and made up of local professionals established in their careers, that helps newcomers integrate, explore, and navigate the hidden local job market. Other initiatives are also bringing communities together, such as the mosque within a church in the Nova Scotia town of Oxford; Trinity United Church rents out its community hall at a nominal fee for use as a mosque, a place for Muslims to gather and worship.
Another recent show of support and compassion for newcomers involved hundreds of people joining the Walk with Refugees for a Stronger Canada, organized by the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia (ISANS) and the Halifax Refugee Clinic. Participants marched through the streets of Halifax chanting, “Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here.” I would argue that compassion is a core Canadian value on which we, as a nation, pride ourselves—to care for displaced people who have been forced to cross national boundaries, and who cannot return home safely.
As summer kicks into full gear, cultural festivals and celebrations fill the city’s atmosphere and social scene. Well-established events such as the Greek and Lebanese Festivals will be joined this August 18th by the new Mosaic Festival, a celebration of culture and diversity in Halifax. These festivals infuse an international mixture of culture, food, drinks, music, and art into our city’s social and cultural landscape. These celebrations are essential for making newcomers and diverse groups feel at home and celebrated. They are equally important for the broader community to learn from and about newcomers and their cultures, and their input into the fabric that makes our multicultural society.
A greater multicultural environment is slowly being formed and developed in the Maritimes—one that reflects recent demographic changes, and mirrors newcomers’ contributions to our society. Some organizations have started to take notice; they are becoming more welcoming and responsive by removing systemic barriers that may deny newcomers access to opportunities, services, or their full participation.
There are organizations that are genuinely aware of the cultural differences and similarities between people, without assigning them value: positive or negative, better or worse, right or wrong. Understanding and respecting each other’s characteristics and differences is a key element to any friendly, attractive, vibrant, multicultural, globally-open city.
Newcomers to our communities do not just help address our demographic challenges; the correlation between better immigrant attraction and retention and bigger economic opportunity and prosperity is well-documented. Newcomers’ attraction and retention depends primarily on economic opportunities, and the ability to have fair and equal access to the job market or business opportunities.
We can always do more to create and improve the environment and the conditions surrounding newcomers. We can do it individually, as families, as organizations, as businesses, or as governments. Intercultural sensitivity and awareness go well beyond just “acceptance” to adaptation and integration and, most importantly, to empathy. We must go beyond just talking about diversity, inclusion, and multiculturalism to acting on it, so that people are equally comfortable with one culture or another.