'Incredibly rewarding' program helping Winnipeggers form friendships with refugees

A host matching program is pairing Winnipeggers with refugees and creating lasting friendships.

Welcome Place program matches newcomers to local hosts

The Al-Souki family at a potluck for refugees and Canadians they've been matched with through a program at Welcome Place. (Travis Golby/CBC)

A Winnipeg mother met her match with a Syrian mom new to the city.

Alwina Willoughby still remembers the first time she saw her new friend at Welcome Place, a newcomer resettlement agency.

"She flashes her beautiful smile and all the apprehensions kind of dissipated," Willoughby said. Her new friend was Faryal Al-Souki, a Syrian refugee who came to Winnipeg last October with her six children.

The two women were paired up as part of a host matching program offered at Welcome Place. It connects refugees with Canadians who want to form friendships and mentorships with newcomers.

"It's just incredibly rewarding experience that I recommend to anyone who might be considering becoming a volunteer," Willoughby said. For Al-Souki, the program came as a relief.
Faryal Al-Souki felt alone when she first arrived in Canada, but she says that's now changed. (Travis Golby/CBC)

She is still learning English and has children with special intellectual needs.

She said she felt scared coming to Canada and "very very sad."

"I need help," she said.

The feeling of being lost in a new country is one Willoughby also knows.

She came to Canada at age 13 and didn't speak a shred of English.

"I know kind of what it feels like to be alone and not have friends and not be able to speak the language."

Conquering the language barrier is just one part of the host matching program. They find ways to interact even when newcomers have little English.

For Willoughby and Al-Souki that meant going down a hill in the winter on a crazy carpet.

"Alwina helped me every time," Al-Souki said with a laugh.

Refugees and other Winnipeggers who've been matched in the program were celebrated Saturday night at an appreciation event at the St. James Civic Centre.

with files by Nadia Kidwai