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The Story of a Welcome Group in Surrey, BC: “These volunteers were going above and beyond!”

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In his role as Volunteer Coordinator at DIVERSEcity, Together Project’s partner in Surrey, British Columbia, Simar Thukral delivers the Welcome Group Program locally, and that means matching refugee newcomer families with volunteers. When an Afghan family of seven was referred to the program, Simar put together a four-person Welcome Group of former newcomers and Canadian-born volunteers to be matched with them.

“It’s always important for me to find volunteers who can support a family’s priorities after coming to British Columbia, and I’m glad that I was able to find that in this group,” he said.

As a former newcomer himself, Simar knows the importance of finding the right assistance for a newcomer family.

“The family was from Afghanistan, with five kids, and two parents who had a big language barrier. They had needs such as English practice, job search, social connections, and children’s extracurriculars,” he said. “These are common needs for each group. But what’s different in this group was that these volunteers were going above and beyond!”

 

Match Introduction

At the first meeting, one volunteer was initially nervous; as someone born in Canada, Astrid didn’t have a lot of experience with newcomers, but she was very keen to see how she could contribute.

“I quickly found out that part of the value I bring is encouraging the family to learn English,” she said. Astrid realized that she could play a crucial role in language practice, especially for the younger adults in the family.

Another volunteer named Ramandeep was accustomed to working with newcomers through her day job as an immigration consultant. Although she was a first-time Welcome Group volunteer, as part of her culture, she had been volunteering since childhood.

“As a Sikh, we do something called sewa— this is service out of pure love; a good deed from a good heart. We say that whatever you earn, you have to give back one-tenth to the community, so what I’m able to give back is one-tenth of work. If I can give, that’s my duty, my culture.”

 

Ramandeep

For Ramandeep Kaur Kalra, volunteering was part of her belief system, but she was also inspired because of the help she had received as a newcomer only four years ago.

“I grew up in Punjab, India, and I came to Canada in 2019, pre-COVID. Things were really difficult for me– I was a single mother with a son, and we didn’t even have a mattress to sleep on,” she said. “I remember people helping me out when we came, and I carry that spirit with me.”

As an immigration consultant, she had been helping people since 2014— even before arriving in Canada.

Her experience made it easy for her to communicate with the newcomer Afghan family, despite not speaking their language. While she sometimes relied on one of her Afghan clients to help translate, she also adjusted her language to make sure they understood her.

“When you work in this position, you’re with many people who don’t speak English as a first language,” she said. “But if I speak slowly and structure my sentences simply, I can communicate at a level where many people can understand me.”

The family told Ramandeep that one of their top priorities was getting their teenage son from Afghanistan to Pakistan so that he would be able to come to Canada. She was able to connect them with the people on the ground who could help.

And months later, after the son arrived, the Welcome Group was thrilled to see the family reunited again.

“It was a very fulfilling experience for me,” she said. “I feel that it’s not that I contributed to them, but they contributed to my life, too, and it has uplifted me in the process.”

 

Astrid

For Astrid, being part of a Welcome Group meant embracing her role in helping the newcomer family feel settled in their new home.

“Canada is welcoming, but we have a global responsibility to bring people to our country and to embrace them and set them up for success,” she said.

Astrid has focused on connecting with the family in person, like taking them to picnics, and other outings, visiting each other’s homes, and more.

Astrid has also spent hours chatting on WhatsApp to the 23-year-old daughter who had to leave her university studies when the Taliban came to Kabul. With her new full-time job in a factory, she didn’t have much opportunity to speak English, so her WhatsApp chat with Astrid was key for language practice and social support..

“I can tell from the tone of her writing when she’s a little bit down, and sometimes it’s important to have someone on the other side, asking ‘Is something wrong?’ Everybody needs a friend. When she was able to get her learner’s permit for driving, she took a picture, and I was the first person she texted. That meant a lot to me.”

Another special moment for Astrid happened at the end of their first meeting, when the interpreter asked the family if they had any last questions.

“The twelve-year-old boy, who hadn’t said anything the whole time, asked in perfect English, ‘I’d like to play soccer please.’ It was a lovely moment!”

Astrid sought out donations for soccer cleats and shinguards, organized bursaries for soccer, helped him enroll in a Whitecaps FC summer soccer camp, and secured free tickets for the entire family to attend a Whitecaps FC soccer game, with the youngest two children serving as flag-bearers on the field as a result of their camp experience.

“They’d never been in a big stadium before,” she said. “They were WhatsApping and recording themselves to send it to their friends. There were ten thousand people there! The whole time, one of the boys sat between me and my husband, and he narrated everything. You could see how much he loved it!”

After tapping into her network, Astrid was also able to get the young soccer enthusiast into a skills development program with a professional soccer player who coaches elite athletes.  And this fall, that enabled him to join league soccer and play organized sports for the first time.

“They see that he is so keen to learn, but that he also teaches what he’s learning to some Vietnamese students at his school,” she said. “This 12-year-old is committed, but he also gives back— they see that he’s very special.”

Astrid encourages volunteers to understand that this experience is rewarding for everyone.

“They often serve me saffron tea, and when I said that it’s too expensive, they said that it’s for special guests. I didn’t realize that it was so meaningful. So I went to the store and bought a little jar of Italian saffron for them to show them that they’re special to me, too.”

 

“We’ll be lifelong friends”

For Ramandeep and Astrid, their journey with this Afghan newcomer family stands as a testament to the transformative power of connection in a new country.

“I wish more people could have this opportunity,” Astrid said. “I think we, as Canadians, are spoiled— there’s a big part of our population that has never, and will hopefully never, see the horrors that these folks have experienced. That’s why it’s our responsibility to help them be successful in their new community. If more people could do just a little bit for people who just need to settle into our country, we’d be a richer place.”

In the spirit of creating welcoming communities, Astrid and Ramandeep serve as an inspiration for others to embark on their own journeys of volunteerism.

“We were able to share their joy with them. I recommend this experience to everyone. It’s not a big time commitment, but it’s a big impact,” said Ramandeep.

“When you ask what I get out of this, here it is: it has changed my perspective on Canada,” said Astrid. “This is such a lovely family— we’ll be lifelong friends.”

Currently, Simar is seeking Surrey-based volunteers, particularly ones who can speak Dari or Pashto with Afghan newcomer families.

To get involved with the Welcome Group Program, click here: www.togetherproject.ca/volunteer

 

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