Newcomer holiday party welcomes 600 immigrants and refugees to Winnipeg

A holiday party put on for new immigrants and refugees to Winnipeg has grown to welcome 600 people, some of whom got to meet Santa Claus for the first time.

NEEDS holiday festivities important for immigrants, refugees who are thousands of kilometres from home

Besma Salih, who was was born in Eritrea and came to Canada from Sudan, says the NEEDS holiday party is special for newcomers, especially those who are far away from family during the holidays. (Marina von Stackelberg/CBC)

When Besma Salih moved to Winnipeg from Sudan three years ago, she had never heard of Santa Claus.

"He's so cute. I always take a picture with him," she laughed.

Originally from Eritrea, the Winnipegger is now one of 24 youth volunteers who helped organize a holiday party Saturday afternoon for the city's new immigrant and refugee families.

"Back home, we didn't [know] much about Christmas," Salih said. "I remember my first Christmas here in Canada, I learned a lot — about Santa, the colours red and green."

The party is put on by NEEDS — Newcomers Employment and Education Development Services. The organization provides support for immigrant and refugee children, youth, and their families, including after-school and employment programs.

"NEEDS is like home for me. When I was new, I didn't speak English that well, so they helped me a lot in school," said Salih.

Children had the chance to decorate and eat gingerbread cookies, and to participate in activities like face-painting and crafts. (Marina von Stackelberg/CBC)

The holiday party started nine years ago, hosting about 100 people in a school gymnasium. This year's was the biggest yet, with 600 people attending the festivities at the Marlborough Hotel in downtown Winnipeg.

"It's for everyone. They welcome a lot of cultures. Even if you don't speak English, you can come and people will translate for you," Salih said.

At the sign-up table, people were welcomed in more than 10 different languages, including Swahili, Kurdish and Arabic.

The event featured entertainment, face-painting, gingerbread decorating, and a visit from Santa, with each child going home with a gift.

Each child got to sit on Santa's lap, and got their own present to take home. (Marina von Stackelberg/CBC)

Like Salih, many of the organization's volunteers started out as users of NEEDS programs, says Yu Sun, who does outreach work with the group.

"They used to be our clients, so we actually see them grow into the role they're doing now. They want to give back to the community now."

The event has built a reputation with new families in Winnipeg as a way to integrate into the community, especially during a time that can be difficult.

"We know holiday season might be a little lonely for them, because you see everybody around you going back to their family," Sun said.

"But they are newcomers. It might be their first year here, so they have nowhere to go to. That's why we have this event."

Organizer Yu Sun says the party that started in a school gym nine years ago has grown to include 600 people. (Marina von Stackelberg/CBC)

The party is particularly poignant for Zahra Al Mouse and her 12 year-old daughter, Nafisa Al Lilo, and 14-year-old son, Abdelaal Al Lilo.

They're celebrating three years since they came to Winnipeg from Syria.

They look forward to the holiday party every year. 

"We are so many people from different countries.… And we feel very comfortable when we see other people [here]," Al Mouse said.

"Sometimes we feel lonely, because we don't have a family [here]. Our family is back home. But the NEEDS centre every year has this party, and I like my children to have fun with many people from different places," she said.

"This is the most important thing for me."

Zahra Al Mouse, centre, and her son, Abdelaal Al Lilo, and daughter, Nafisa Al Lilo, say the holiday party is a highlight for them every year. The family from Syria says they look forward to seeing everyone celebrate together, even if they can't speak the same language. (Marina von Stackelberg/CBC)


Marina von Stackelberg is a senior reporter at CBC's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. She previously worked as a reporter and host in Winnipeg, with earlier stints in Halifax and Sudbury. Her stories regularly appear across the country on CBC Radio and CBC News Network. Connect with her by email at or on social media @CBCMarina.