Annual holiday event lets newcomers make new friends, learn about traditions — and, of course, meet Santa

The Marlborough Hotel in downtown Winnipeg was buzzing Saturday afternoon as hundreds of newcomers to Canada gathered to celebrate the holidays.

NEEDS Inc.'s holiday event began 8 years ago with 50 people, welcomed more than 400 on Saturday

Mohammad Zadeh, his wife, Aiche Bilal, and their children were at Saturday's holiday event. From left: Abdulakader, 14; Moemen, 12; Mahdi, 7, and Amira Zadeh, 14. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

The Marlborough Hotel in downtown Winnipeg was buzzing Saturday afternoon as hundreds of newcomers to Canada gathered to celebrate the holidays.

"I always really like this day, because it's an opportunity to see families reconnect with families, see how much they've grown since arriving," said Heather Robertson.

She's the clinical director at Newcomers Employment and Education Development Services, also knows as NEEDS Inc., which organized the eighth annual Winter Holiday Celebration for Newcomer Children, Youth and Families.

The event gives children and youth the opportunity to make crafts, dance, meet Santa Claus and receive a gift. 

Heather Robertson, clinical director for NEEDS Inc., says the the agency, which works with newcomers to Canada, serves about 2,000 people each year. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

Among the people at Saturday's celebration were Mohammad Zadeh, his wife, Aiche Bilal, and their four children, who came to Canada from Syria in February 2016.

Zadeh said through an interpreter that he appreciates the party, where his kids can meet children from other countries and cultures.

"It helps them both adjust in living here and also socialize," he said. 

Organizers say the majority of people at Saturday's event just arrived in Canada this year.

Robertson said the families participating come from a range of countries, including Syria, Iraq, Congo, Ethiopia and Somalia.

"I think one of the strengths of Winnipeg, of Canada is that we are multicultural," said Robertson.

"There's lots of different celebrations that go on, and so it's an opportunity for people to come together and learn about different things about the holidays and make a gingerbread house — they might have heard about that — and to meet Santa, and just kind of experience maybe something different and something new."   

The eighth Annual Winter Holiday Celebration for Newcomer Children, Youth and Families was organized by NEEDS Inc. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

The annual event has grown over the years, she said.

When she started at the agency 10 years ago, the holiday party for roughly 50 kids was held in the NEEDS Inc. multipurpose room. This year, organizers planned for roughly 400 people. 

Robertson said NEEDS Inc. offers a variety of services that help families, from the time they arrive in Winnipeg to becoming Canadian citizens. That includes everything from orientation programs, after-school youth programs, a homework club, an employment program and psycho-social support.

NEEDS Inc. serves roughly 2,000 people each year, she said, most of whom are children and youth.