'They bring new ways of doing things' as small Ontario city tries to attract newcomers

St. Thomas, Ontario has population that is 95 per cent Caucasian. But its size and low cost of living can be its main draw in bringing in people from around the world.

Devastated by recession a decade ago, some are pinning the future of St. Thomas on immigrants

Rahma Kiwan and Ahmed Hamad with their kids Yousef, Amer, Retal and Shahin in their home in St. Thomas, Ont. (Kate Dubinski/CBC News)

Rahma Kiwan is a busy mom with three sons, aged 12, 10 and 2, and an infant daughter, Retal.

"Our Canadian baby," Rahma says proudly. "She is a Canadian baby."

Rahma and her husband, Amer Hamad, are from Syria. They came to Canada via Jordan with their boys more than two years ago.

They were part of a wave of Syrian refugees. They ended up in southwestern Ontario city of St. Thomas.

At 39,000 residents, St. Thomas has roughly the same population as Darah, the Syrian city the family fled because of war. The similar size has helped them with the transition.

"We are very, very happy. St. Thomas is very good. Canada is very good," says Rahma.

Home of NHL superstar

St. Thomas is surrounded by rich farmland, where those who weren't white stood out as either migrant workers or Mexican Mennonites living in insular communities.

Diners and country restaurants still dominate the food landscape, but a smattering of Mexican cantinas remind residents of the Mennonite influence on the region.

The railway pass over the Highway 3 bypass in St. Thomas. (Google Maps)

One of St. Thomas' favourite sons is Joe Thornton, the most Canadian of hometown heroes — a hockey player. The other? A circus elephant hit by a train for whom the city erected a giant statue.

The local economy used to be driven by auto manufacturing, but no more. Large plants such as Sterling, Lear and Ford Talbotville closed their doors about a decade ago.

To revive the city's fortunes, some pinning their hopes that newcomers from abroad can help transform the local economy.

"They bring new ways of doing things, new ideas, new businesses and doing them in a different way," says Petrusia Hontar, co-ordinator at the St. Thomas-Elgin Local Immigration Partnership. "The newcomers will fill that void."

Grassroots effort

The transformation isn't being driven by the city's economic development corporation or even city politicians.

Instead, the transformation is grassroots, run by church and community groups that say the value newcomers bring to the economically-bruised city is showing up in small victories around town.

When Syrians began to arrive in Canada, St. Thomas didn't have the services to accept government assisted refugees. Instead, Rahma and Amer were sponsored by a group from the First United Church, which wrapped around them to provide housing, and cultural training. 

Lori Baldwin-Sands sits with Ahmed and Yousef and Shahin Hamad in the Hamad-Kiwan family home. (Kate Dubinski/CBC News)

"Watching how the community has responded to this family, everyone coming together, how welcoming we've been, we can do that better than any large city out there," said Lori Baldwin-Sands, one of the members of the church team.

"We are a nation of refugees that have come together and decided that our diversity makes us much stronger. We look for the successes and we try to work together to make sure the successes happen."

An entrepreneurial spirit

When Hassib Zabian first set foot in St. Thomas in 1990, it was a very different place.

There was steady work at the Ford plant  — and if not there, then the spin-off jobs that come with large manufacturing facilities.

But that wasn't the kind of work Zabian was looking for in his new life. Having arrived from Lebanon, the young man had an entrepreneurial spirit and opened a clothing and alterations store in the Elgin Mall.

Hassib Zabian in his shop in St. Thomas, Ont. (Kate Dubinski/CBC News)

Today, almost three decades later, his customers are the children and grandchildren of the original people he'd served.

"In North America, in Canada, we are decreasing in population," Zabian says as he customizes a belt for a long-time customer. "That's why we need newcomers. You may spend money to bring people in, but it's an investment and you gain eventually."

Over at the St. Thomas Elgin Local Immigration Partnership, Petrusia Hontar is working to attract more of that entrepreneurial thinking. She works out of the YWCA office, along with director of education and settlement Shelley Harris and manager Juliane Hundt to coordinate bringing newcomers to the city.

They admit it's not always easy to convince people living in a city hard hit by an economic downturn that newcomers are the future.

"Periodically, we do hear from some folks who are concerned," Harris admits. "But as the economy is improving, they see there are jobs for everyone. We have to diversity our workforce, diversify our economy.

There's also the concern of racial tension. The population of St. Thomas is about 95 per cent Caucasian.

"It's a slow process. We're not going to do it overnight — we're looking at a five, ten year plan with truly moving forward to bring the community into a space where everyone is welcome."

Sharing space

Recently, officials at St. Hilda's St. Luke's Anglican, heard that St. Thomas' Muslim population had nowhere to pray. A drive to London, Ont., about 30 minutes away, isn't always possible.

So, the church has cleared out their fellowship room for Friday afternoon Jumaa prayers, considered obligatory for some.

Up to 30 people can fit into the space and recently, during Ramadan, about 50 people from different broke the fast together, a sign of the changing city, Hontar says.

Petrusia Hontar, project coordinator of the St. Thomas-Elgin Local Immigration Partnership, Shelley Harris, director of education and settlement at the YWCA St. Thomas-Elgin, and Juliane Hundt, manager at the YWCA St. Thomas-Elgin. (Kate Dubinski/CBC News)

The YWCA and the immigration partnership group last year created a website, Welcome to St. Thomas-Elgin, a one-stop shop for newcomers with information about growth sectors, health, housing, and newcomer stories. Those who are inspired can ask the featured immigrants a question about their experience and soon, they'll be able to chat with Hundt about moving to St. Thomas.

"We have a wide range of people moving here," Hundt says.

"People from Cambodia, Vietnam, China, central and southern America, Colombia, Mexico, Syria, Sudan — it's a mixture, but the majority come through the family sponsorship program."

The place grabs some, Harris says, and doesn't let go. One man, from Sudan, was driving through southwestern Ontario and took a wrong turned, fell in love with St. Thomas, and settled here. Seven families from India, who had previously lived in Brampton, recently bought homes in a new subdivision, attracted to the quiet and low cost of living. 

Big challenges for a small city

But settling newcomers isn't without its challenges. The immigrant population isn't large enough that there are ESL classes at the high schools.

Just one school, on the outskirts of the city, offers English as a Second Language classes. They're offered there because of the large Mexican Mennonite population, which means newcomers from Syria, for example, are bussed up to 50 minutes to the one high school where they can learn the language.

"We're hoping that can develop as we can get more youth in the community," Harris says. "The kids who go out there do very well, they seem to be enjoying it, it's just not an ideal situation. They're vulnerable to isolation, they're caught between two worlds, and it would be easier if they could be in their own communities."

Family income

Back at her home, Rahma Kiwan is busy caring for her four children  Her husband Amer, who worked with ceramic tile back in Syria, has found similar employment with a company in St. Thomas.

It's the kind of success that tailor Hassib Zabian applauds.

"We a human, we have to help everyone. We have to build, not only material but build people, too," says Zabian.

"When you look at the Syrian families they have large families, two, three, four kids. We spend money on them now, but when they graduate and start working, the money we spent will make it back. It's not wasting money. It's investing."

This story is part of country-wide CBC project called Transformation.

CBC stations across the country will be taking a closer look at some of the problems small towns face and how they are pushing forward and adapting to those challenges.

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