Nfld. & Labrador

Association for New Canadians reflects on 'quite a journey' as it celebrates 40th anniversary

The non-profit group has come a long way from its beginnings in 1979, and is celebrating its success and expansion since.

Non-profit group began in 1979 to help Vietnamese refugees

Luma Rabeeah, originally from Iraq, arrived in St. John's early in 2019 and helped celebrate the Association for New Canadians' 40th anniversary on Thursday. (Meg Roberts/CBC)

Finding herself amid a bustling breakfast party in St. John's is a big change from Luma Rabeeah's former life in Iraq.

"There is no peace in my country. And for this reason, I decided to leave everything," she said.

Fleeing upheaval, Luba arrived in St. John's at the beginning of 2019, where the services of the Association for New Canadians awaited to help her adjust. Now, she's taking ANC language classes, and on Thursday, took part in a celebratory breakfast to mark the non-profit's 40th anniversary.

"They help me with so many things," she said, calling its staff and volunteers "lovely people."

The non-profit group, headquartered in St. John's with five satellite offices flung across Newfoundland and Labrador, wasn't always the one-stop shop for newcomers to the province. It was born in 1979, out of the efforts of a few volunteers looking to help Vietnamese refugees.

"It's been quite a journey," said executive director Megan Morris.

"Every year we've been changing and adapting to respond to the needs of newcomers in our community."

The volunteers helping Vietnamese people adjust to life in Newfoundland and Labrador transformed into the ANC in 1984, and has been expanding ever since. When asked to fit their offerings into a nutshell, Morris laughed and said, "It's a big nutshell."

There are resettlement programs for refugees, where newcomers are met at the airport and guided through everyday basics. There's an ESL centre with more than 250 students, and recently there have been innovations like pairing skilled refugees with farmers, or the food truck training program.

"We really want to increase immigration in this province. We know it's critical, and we know that good services and excellent programming will only add to their staying in this province," said Morris.

Grace Okwera was helped by the ANC when she arrived in May 1993, and now is an instructor with the organization. (CBC)

From immigrant to ESL teacher

While Newfoundland and Labrador trails most other provinces in Canada for immigration, its numbers have been slowly increasing — 616 permanent residents were added to the province in 2008, while 1,305 were welcomed last year. The province has set a target to attract 1,700 immigrants annually by 2022.

Grace Okwera can remember when that immigration was just a trickle, when she arrived in May 1993. Originally from Uganda, she can still remember the uncertainty of touching down at the St. John's airport with her family, including a toddler and a five-year-old, in tow.

"We had a bit of nervousness, of being new and … wondering how'd you'd get around, and all that," she said.

But straight off the tarmac, a team from the ANC whisked her and her family to their first home on Patrick Street, and guided them through how to take the bus and find groceries. Okwera's family was paired with a local one with children around the same age, which helped them integrate into sports and activities that helped ease the transition.

"To me, in my memory, that was one of the most helpful things that happened," she said.

Okwera still experiences those first days in Newfoundland and Labrador, as she works with other new arrivals as an instructor with the ANC. She helps newcomers with everything from language skills to Canadian currency and geography.

Executive director Megan Morris says the group welcomed 300 refugees last year, exceeding their target of 290. (CBC)

When they get overwhelmed by the steep challenges of adjustment, she reminds them of their first hours in the country.

"You have to take a moment, and look down the hill, in order to really understand, 'yes, I've progressed,'" she said.

Retention challenges

Amid its success stories, the ANC is also aware of the continued challenges to keep immigrants in the province.

"Our goal is to support retention," said Morris.

To that end, continuing to expand programs and resources remains a priority — like its newest satellite office in Forteau, which came into being after conversations about the need for support in the Labrador Straits area.

"We took a chance. It's a pilot, and it's proving to be a really valuable pilot," said Morris.

"It;s been very, very positive, and that's been true of all the sites. The numbers are impressive."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Cecil Haire and Meg Roberts