Saint John plans to be the most 'welcoming' city in the province

Last year, 22-year-old Fadi Al Darwish walked into an OK Tire in Saint John and volunteered his services. He was soon a paid employee — and an example of how the city sees itself growing again.

City population shrank by 2,488 people in last census period

Fadi Al Darwish, 22, formerly of Syria, now works full time at OK Tire in Saint John. He began last year by volunteering his hours. (Connell Smith, CBC)

Last year, 22-year-old Fadi Al Darwish walked into OK Tire in the north end of Saint John and began to volunteer his services.

Owner Paul Pollari wasn't sure what skills Al Darwish possessed but put him to work on jobs like painting the shop.

"I thought 'Well, you know what? Let's try him,'" Pollari said.

Pollari's new employee turned out to be a great fit. Al Darwish quickly showed he knew quite a bit about auto repairs from his former life in Syria and Lebanon.

I would say this is a crisis for us not to have youth in our midst. So we need to be serious about that.- Leticia Adair

"He's been very good when it comes to basic steering, suspension, brakes, tires," Pollari said. "He's well-rounded in the automotive field."

The newcomer also turned out to have a great work ethic, was popular with the others in the shop and could translate for a growing base of customers who speak Arabic.

With two children and a third on the way, Al Darwish may also represent a lifeline for Saint John.

Over the four-year census period ending in 2016, Saint John's population declined by 2,488.

In 2016, alone 684 people left the city, and 68 more people died there than were born.

Fortunately, the other side of the ledger showed 1,319 international immigrants arrived — many of them refugees like Al Darwish from the Middle East.

Saint John council's growth committee knows the picture all too well.

Without immigrants, Saint John's population decline would be even more serious. (City of Saint John)

At a meeting at City Hall on Tuesday, they'll discuss what they're calling a population growth framework, a list of steps to be taken to attract newcomers, improve the experience of those who have recently arrived, and retain those who are from here, especially young people.

Proposed measures include the creation of a newcomer guide, building a toolkit to support employers, working more closely with existing immigrant communities, holding a new multicultural festival, and forming a youth retention task force.

The vision, says a report prepared for council, "is to be the most welcoming community in New Brunswick."

Calls for employer support

Finding a way to support employers who hire refugees is key, says Leticia Adair of the Immigrant and Refugee Support Centre and a longtime advocate for refugees.

Adair said employers will need help, not just from the provincial and federal governments but from city hall as well.

"It takes somebody willing to employ somebody, even part time, or give them a chance even if they don't have a complete command of the language," Adair said.

"Give some seed money to the employer to be able to get this person going. Because they are going to have to be investing time and energy, and to be patient with this newcomer."

Could stem loss of young people

She said the immigrants will get the city growing, which, in turn, could stem the out-migration of young people.

"I would say this is a crisis for us not to have youth in our midst. So we need to be serious about that."

At OK Tire, Paul Pollari agreed. Getting newcomers into the workforce, he said, will quickly build their language skills and assist them in the transition into the fabric of Saint John.

"Finding placements for them in different small businesses would be critical," Pollari said. "Most of them are very eager to find jobs. ... They'd be more than happy to volunteer their time or actually work to get practical experience."

About the Author

Connell Smith

Reporter

Connell Smith is a reporter with CBC in Saint John. He can be reached at 632-7726 Connell.smith@cbc.ca