Vancouver Welcome Map project opens interactive door to Syrian refugees

The Vancouver Welcome Map project is the brainchild of UBC PhD student Jennifer Rae Pierce who was inspired by her personal experiences and professional life.

Rolling out the welcome mat by rolling out the Welcome Map

Over 50 volunteers have collaborated on the Vancouver Welcome Map project. (Jennifer Rae Pierce)

Jennifer Rae Pierce knows what it's like to be a newcomer in a strange land.

The UBC PhD planning student has travelled a path from her U.S. home to South Africa, Hungary, Israel, India and now Canada.

While attending the Vancouver press conference announcing the arrival of Syrian refugees, she was struck by a thought: Why not combine her profession and personal experiences to help those newly arriving in the Lower Mainland?

"I was inspired by that press conference," said Pierce "I know what it's like to not be familiar with the culture or language, and how helpful it can be to find food products that you're used to, or worship spaces."

The eureka moment led to the creation of the Vancouver Welcome Map project — an interactive website designed to help incoming refugees and recent immigrants find services, resources and and all manner of things needed to survive and thrive.

The Vancouver Welcome Map project in an interactive multi-lingual map designed to help newcomers to our region, including refugees, find services and resources. (Vancouver Welcome Map)

"Our intent with this map is really to ensure that people coming here from a different culture feel welcomed," said Pierce. "That's our hope with this project."

The map covers most of the Lower Mainland and is bilingual Arabic and English.

Services that fall into categories like food and shopping, religion, government, and health and beauty are pinned with interactive details.

Word-of-mouth information

Pierce says most of the information was gleaned from existing websites. Other bits — like where to find certain foods, or a note about an Arabic-speaking pharmacist  — came via word-of-mouth.

As well, Pierce's team used good old fashion Google to fill in the blanks where information was missing. 

"So for example, some of the people coming from Syria are Christian and they might be seeking churches offering services in Arabic," said Pierce.

Jennifer Rae Pierce says her personal experience relocating and adjusting to life in different countries led to the idea for the Vancouver Welcome Map project. (Jennifer Rae Pierce)

Over 50 volunteers stepped forward to collaborate on the Welcome Map project. Most are UBC planning students with map-making expertise. A key few did the translating, while others were recruited to test-drive the site. 

"We...sought out people who moved from Syria or nearby countries, who we could interview to make sure the map was meeting the needs of the incoming people," said Pierce.

"I expected 5 or 10 people"

"I've been really amazed at the amount of energy that is out there," she added. "Once I put out the call I expected to get five or ten people, so the fact that I've had this much interest has really surprised me."

The Vancouver Welcome Map project continues to evolve. Pierce says it is still looking for translators to help with the finishing touches. Then the final step will be to distribute printed brochures around the region to direct incoming refugees to the site.

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