Creating Calgarians: how refugees integrate

Men and women are equal, homosexuality needs to be accepted, and yes, we let our dogs sleep on our beds. Refugees arriving in our city get a crash course on being Calgarian.

Customs of a new country can be bewildering, from gender norms to the proper way to cross the street

Amal Madibbo, immigration scholar with the University of Calgary's Department of Sociology, says integration happens when newcomers are accepted as equal citizens and they find 'a career commensurate with their qualifications.' (Judy Aldous)

Syrian refugees continue to arrive, and more are expected.

Once they find apartments, get health care cards, and register for ESL classes, the real work begins — becoming Calgarian.

We pride ourselves on our multiculturalism and respect for diverse cultures.

Yet, there are also cultural norms here. Norms of behaviour and custom that form the social glue of our society and that need to be learned.

Amal Madibbo, originally from the Sudan, is an immigration scholar at the University of Calgary.

Adaw Wek, who works with new refugees through the Margaret Chisholm Resettlement Centre, says she tells newcomers 'follow the laws and you are Canadian.' (Judy Aldous)

She says without meaningful integration, newcomers become marginalized and feel "they don't belong in this country — that the country is not theirs."

How do we avoid that? It's not as though there is a paper "social contract" to hand out at the airport.

Instead there are classes on how to be Canadian, like the one at the Margaret Chisholm Resettlement Centre.

Gender Equality

Teaching them gender equality is the hardest thing.- Adaw Wek

Two Iraqi and two Syrian families, all recently arrived as refugees, sit facing a screen which says, "Men and Women are Equal". "Teaching them gender equality is the hardest thing," Adaw Wek laments.

Six feet tall and fluent in three languages, Wek is a much-in-demand settlement counsellor helping refugees from all over the world do as she once did — make Calgary home.

Sara Azizi, 28 is a hairstylist in Calgary who arrived as a refugee from Iraq when she was 13. She tells other newcomers 'there are more rules here than in any Middle Eastern country.' (submitted Sara Azizi)

She says refugees from the same country can hold different values.

"People from the city, they already get it. From the countryside, they literally think they can shut their wife up."

Wek says she treats couples like a team.

She ensures they are both present when they sign all documents. And then she reminds all newcomers that Canadian law is clear.

Sara Azizi came to Canada as a refugee from Iraq 10 years ago.

She says learning about gender norms, and things like homosexuality, took a bit of time. "I watched a lot of TV. It's just about learning about differences."

Land of Plenty

But culture goes beyond law, and into behaviour.

If families have spent time in a refugee camp or war-torn cities where water is scarce, Wek says she will talk to them about personal hygiene.

"I tell them they must change their clothes every day and wear deodorant."

Learning that you can use a lot of water. That you can wash three loads of laundry. I know what it is like to not have enough water. But here you do.- Sara Azizi

Even if you're from a major city in Iraq, the way we use water in Canada can come as a shock.

"It's the little things," says Azizi who now works as a hair stylist. "Learning that you can use a lot of water. That you can wash three loads of laundry. I know what it is like to not have enough water. But here you do."

A Not So Simple Handshake

Some cultures and religions prohibit men and women who are not related from touching.

In Calgary, an extended hand refused can be perceived as a sleight.

Madibbo, the immigration scholar, says she can relate because in her Sudanese culture "we shake hands a lot."

And here's where cultural integration works both ways.

Madibbo recalls inviting some Canadian-born colleagues to her office recently.

"One shook hands and one didn't want to, for health reasons. For someone from my culture that could be very offensive. I didn't dwell on that and I didn't say, 'you offended me.'"

So they settled in the middle. With a fist pump.

This ongoing discussion is key to integration.

Azizi says it's incumbent on refugees to talk about their culture and beliefs.

"You just have to explain."

An example of the information shared with refugees during their first year in Calgary. (Judy Aldous)

Kids Talk Back

Every parent can feel their child is growing up in a foreign culture, but intergenerational friction is intensified for refugees.

Admasu Tachble from the Centre for Newcomers says Canadian teachers encourage kids to express themselves.

That can cause tension at home.

I tell people. There are more rules here than in any middle-eastern country.- Sara Azizi

"When it comes to the home environment, most of the time newcomers come from a strict disciplinarian culture where interaction is one directional."

So, the centre offers interactive displays where parents are encouraged to talk with their children about difficult subjects.

"We let [the parents] know there are other options. You can talk it through," says Tachble.

For Azizi's father, the idea of a 'sleep over' was confusing.

"'Sleep is sleep,' he said. 'I don't get it.'"

Caught in the Crosswalk

Small things in a new land can trip you up. You know this if you've travelled.

For Zainab Al Qaisi it's the rules of the road.

She arrived three weeks ago from Iraq and was confused by people standing on the street corner waiting for the light to turn.

Zainab Al Qaisi who arrived from Iraq via Lebanon in late November says 'in Iraq you can't do anything. Here I feeling free.' (Judy Aldous)

"In Baghdad, I just walk."

Azizi says, "I tell people. There are more rules here than in any Middle Eastern country."

"Like how the government takes so much money from your paycheque to pay for things like medical care. I had that to explain to someone," she says.

She explained it by saying it was for people like her father, who at 85 does not work.

But even something as simple as how Calgarians treat their dogs struck Azizi as odd.

"Pets. We have dogs in Iraq too, but they don't sleep in bed with us."

Will it work?

Canada has an enviable track record of integration, but the U of C's Madibbo says certain racial groups have integrated better than others.

"Chinese and Japanese are very well integrated into society. Blacks are not."

Religion is also a factor, Madibbo says. 

"Muslims may not be the most 'desired groups' now because of the whole issue of Islamophobia"

Azizi says newcomers, especially Muslim refugees, may be afraid they are coming to a place where people won't like them because of the problems they hear about in the news.

And that can cause some newcomers to be overly defensive about their own culture.

This can countered by open conversation.

"Openness and understanding," she says. "You have to realise you are someplace new now. And you're not going to live like you did back home."

Calgary at a Crossroads is CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. Read more stories from the series at Calgary at a Crossroads.


Judy Aldous

CBC Radio

Judy Aldous is an award-winning reporter and producer who has worked across the country for CBC Radio. She's been working with CBC Calgary since 2002 and is currently the host of alberta@noon.


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