Programs support and instruct immigrants new to Hamilton

Outreach programs help newcomers learn their way around the language and culture.
One-on-one coaching program at Volunteer Hamilton introduces newcomers to volunteering.

It can be tough to adjust and settle down as a newcomer to Canada.

From communicating with immigration officers to getting used to the local transportation system, newcomers have to learn to navigate their new environment quickly.

Muntasir Masum knows how that feels.

When he arrived alone from Bangladesh in 2011 his first challenge was just learning how to get around Hamilton.

"I didn't know about the bus stops and that I could actually look up bus times. I had real difficulty getting around places," said Masum.

"Nobody actually tells us. I didn’t know about it for a long time," he added.

It took him six weeks to understand how HSR works.

Getting used to the local public transit system is only the beginning.

"There are a lot of things a newcomer doesn't know. These are really trivial issues. But if you can give that information [to newcomers], you can get them integrated," he said.

Masum also recognizes the biggest challenge – language.

"For [new] people coming here, language is a huge barrier to them to learn the culture. They are afraid and feel unwelcome," said the 26-year-old, who came to pursue a sociology graduate degree at McMaster.

English wasn't a major hurdle for Masum – he had studied it from the time he was a boy in Bangladesh. Instead, he wanted to meet and connect with people from outside the university community.

This led him to volunteer as a coach for Volunteer Hamilton's Cultural-Linguistic program.

The program connects and introduces newcomers to volunteering opportunities in Hamilton through one-on-one coaching — all done in their own language.

"We've been good at getting the word out [about volunteering] in English. But we also want to do it in other languages," said Michael Gustar, manager of agency and volunteer resources at Volunteer Hamilton.

When Masum started in July 2012, the program was still in its early days, with eight coaches.

Now, with 18 coaches and 16 languages to offer, there is greater opportunity for newcomers to be a part of Hamilton through volunteering.

More outreach is underway to spread the word about the program.

Gustar plans to speak to local school boards and representatives at Mohawk College, under their Language Instruction for Newcomers (LINC) program.

Because language can also be a connector, Gustar thinks the program would help newcomers gain a better grasp of English.

"To enhance their facility with English, and then enhance their community connection. The whole point is to reduce that fear factor. That's empowering for newcomers," explained Gustar.

Fear of a new culture affects well-being

Pat Wright is well aware of the uncertainty felt by immigrants.

"Coming to a new community can be very intimidating. You tend to be isolated," said Wright, a manager at the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion (HCCI).

"Immigration itself is a shock. You find it very hard to settle, to be effective and prosperous. If you're unhappy, you may become depressed."

The centre planned and implemented a two-year mental health program for newcomers, Facilitating Mental Health and Addictions Access and Inclusion. The HCCI initiative informs newcomers of support services in Hamilton.

To do so, HCCI enlists "cultural interpreters," non-Anglophone community leaders in Hamilton. With online and in-class training on mental health, HCCI prepares its 11 interpreters to team up with health care service providers, and translate health care information to newcomers in 13 languages.

The goal isn't to offer clinical advice, but to facilitate dialogue between health care experts and newcomers facing mental health issues.

"The word 'depression' is not in their language," explained Wright.

"That's why we need to have that cultural piece. They need to understand the cultural background and how people talk of these issues before we can provide services for them."

More support services for newcomers needed

While both programs are noteworthy initiatives to assist newcomers, Masum thinks there is a need for more support services catering to both international students and new immigrants.

"Landed immigrants have different needs and responsibilities. You will have to support them in different ways," he pointed out, acknowledging the diverse needs of newcomers.

It was a trial and error period for Masum during the first few months upon arriving. But he learned through experience and exposure.

Masum discovered that Hamilton has a lot going for it through volunteering.

"I had negative views about Hamilton before coming here, like it's not livable," he admitted.

"These notions changed when I got to meet people from Hamilton," said Masum.

To learn more about the Cultural-Linguistic program or to register, contact Volunteer Hamilton at 905-523-4444 or email Barbara Klimstra at