Newcomers face challenges in small-town Canada, but this one is 'heaven'

Zoe Dickson and Felicia Joh compare their new home to heaven. Killarney, Man., has been home for the two friends and Dickson's seven-year-old son since July after fleeing Liberia and living for years in a refugee camp in Ivory Coast.

Study delves into challenges and successes of settling refugees and immigrants in rural communities

Zoe Dickson and Felicia Joh compare their new rural Manitoba home to heaven

6 years ago
Duration 1:19
An estimated 30-thousand Syrian refugees have arrived in Canada over the past year. Many of them have moved into large cities - like Winnipeg - but some have settled into small towns in rural Manitoba.

Zoe Dickson and Felicia Joh compare their new rural Manitoba home to heaven.

The two friends, 42 and 40, met in a refugee camp in Ivory Coast after fleeing Liberia. Their files were handed over to Canada and finally in July, they came to Killarney, Man. with Dickson's seven-year-old son. 

"Here we are free. The people are very friendly," Joh said. "It feels like home even though the town is small."
The trio arrived in Canada and resettled as sponsored refugees at the same time tens of thousands of Syrian refugees were arriving in Canada.
Zoe Dickson & Felicia Joh's home in Killarney, Man., is a far cry from the plaster hut they lived in after fleeing Liberia for a refugee camp in Ivory Coast. (Riley Laychuk/CBC )

Dickson said they cried tears of joy when they arrived in Killarney, 240 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg, at their small, charcoal-coloured home. It was fully furnished, complete with clothes and appliances. It was a far cry from the plaster shelter they had in Africa. The donated chairs and couches here are a luxury compared to a dirt floor.

They are just one example of how small towns and villages outside of major centres have opened their doors and welcomed newcomers from all over the world. 

Can small towns handle influx of newcomers?

Brandon University's Rural Development Institute wanted to find out if small towns such as Killarney are equipped to provide all the necessary supports and services.

The RDI looked at five Manitoba communities of varying sizes as part of a study and conducted 30 interviews with service providers, senior officials and sponsorship groups to take the overall temperature of Manitoba's resettlement efforts. 

"What stood out was the capacity for welcoming both immigrants and the refugees," Bill Ashton, RDI's director said. "There were also challenges across the board for all five of them."

Boissevain-Killarney, Dauphin, Morden-Winkler-Altona-Carman, Portage la Prairie and Steinbach-Kleefeld were the five communities selected for the study. 

Language, including the availability of interpreters and English classes, was a common issue found among the five, according to Ashton.

Transportation a common challenge 

The study also found transportation to be a challenge among the five, both within communities and getting to and from larger centres. 

Dickson and Joh said they've been fortunate, many volunteers have stepped up in Killarney to help them get to and from appointments, stores and the many social events they've been invited to since arriving. 
If Zoe Dickson & Felicia Joh can't get a ride somewhere, they are stuck either walking or taking this bike. They hope to get a driver's license so they can drive themselves around Killarney, Man. (Riley Laychuk/CBC )

But they would like the freedom to be able to go wherever they want, whenever.  Walking and riding a bike are the only two modes of transportation at their disposal if someone isn't able to drive them. Dickson is hoping to change that. 

"We are studying the driving handbook," Dickson said. "We plan to enroll in [driver's education] courses and get a drivers license and drive."

Killarney-Boissevain was cited in the survey for a lack of available services due to its population, however both women said they've been able to make do. English classes are offered in the community and both are currently looking for jobs. 

The RDI said between Nov. 4, 2015 and Aug. 1, 2016, about 30,000 Syrian refugees settled in Canada, including more than 1,000 in Manitoba. Ashton estimated about a tenth of Manitoba's refugees settled in rural communities.

"What was unique, for instance, in Winkler was the great support they got," he said. "They were involved with 53 refugees and they were expecting more [at the time of the study]."

"They have a great history of supporting newcomers into their communities." 

The study found communities such as Winkler and Steinbach were able to provide more services than some of the other communities because of their experience with newcomers. 

Plan to stay in Killarney

Both women were hairdressers but are hoping to one day land a job in the health care field. 
Dickson and Joh moved to Killarney, Man., a small town about 200 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg. (Riley Laychuk/CBC )

"The only thing that would make us really happy again ... the only thing we pray for [is] a good job," Joh said. She's also hoping to one day reconnect with her three children, who became separated from her during a civil war in Liberia in the 1990s. 

They aren't planning to move to Brandon or Winnipeg and are looking forward to their first winter in Canada, despite being told it's cold and they'll have to dress in many layers. 

"This place is really a peaceful place of caring and loving people," Dickson said. "We are happy. We want for more [refugees] to come."

"We are planning to stay in Killarney. This is our new home," she added.