As much as the snow and cold weather was new to many of the about 150 newcomers to Canada who took in the Association for New Canadians Christmas dinner in St. John’s Thursday, so is the idea and Canadian traditions of Christmas.
For the newcomers — families that have come from countries like Sudan, Uganda, Syria and Iraq — it will be their first Christmas in Canada because they have all been here less than a year. Some just arrived on Wednesday.
They are all federal-government sponsored refugees referred to Canada for resettlement by the United Nations Refugee Agency, or another referral organization, through the Government-Assisted Refugees (GAR) Program.
Yosra Abbohelamin, from Sudan in North Africa, said her and her family arrived in Newfoundland and Labrador seven months ago from Iraq.
“I came with my family for study and for work,” she said in broken English. “I like Canada and I am learning English.”
Abbohelamin said as a child her family did celebrate Christmas with a tree, visiting relatives and taking part in outside events. She said the event on Thursday was wonderful to get to meet people.
“This event is wonderful, it is a good party,” she said. “I am happy also here. I’m excited about Christmas here in Canada. I like Christmas very much.”
The Christmas dinner on Thursday was sponsored by the Rotary Club of St. John’s East. It featured a turkey dinner and tables lined out with all kinds of food. There was Christmas music playing intermixed with excited chatter, and the children were running around with the happiness you’d expect to see at such a party this time of year.
And Santa Claus himself showed up to present gifts to the children.
Jim Murphy, director of language services here at the Association for New Canadians, gets a little emotional speaking about the importance of such an event to the newcomers. He said there are varying circumstances why they decided to come to Canada.
“They could simply be moving from their country due to political climate,” he said. “Some countries are involved in war and they may have already moved out of their country and spent time in refugee camps elsewhere.”
“Over time I think we will see the good that comes out of this event.”
Murphy said it’s important to make the newcomers feel welcomed as they adjust to their new life.
“What better place than Newfoundland and Labrador to make people feel welcomed, I mean, that’s what we do,” Murphy said. “Now that they are here they will recognize some faces and we will see them soon in our schools if they are not already going to schools — the children in the public school system and the parents in our school to learn English. We run an English language school and we currently have about 220 students, all adult learners, in that school right now.
“Once the kids are kindergarten age they go to the regular school system. The children who are a little older there could be some English bridging for them but then they will eventually go into the school system, as well. What’s really interesting about it is that children learn so quickly that they end up, oftentimes, being the translators for their parents at very young ages because they are being so exposed to the language they pick it up much more quickly. There is a little role reversal there as to survival in new language in a new country, so that is interesting.
Waleed Shekho said he came from Syria and was happy to leave as conditions are still bad in the war-torn country.
“People are very kind here, very friendly,” he said. “If you need help it is easy to find someone to help you.”
Shekho, a budding artist, said his plan is to one day open a gallery in Canada for his Tazhib Islamic artwork.
Rasha Shekho said she is a Kurdish from Syria and has been in Canada for five months. She also lived in Sudan and Libya.
“I studied and graduated (in Libya) in dentistry,” she said. “I came here to complete my studies and to work also. My plan is to stay in Canada. I came with my mother, brother and sister. Now I want to improve my English and go to university to complete my masters and get licence to work in Canada.”
Roger Barbour, secretary for the Rotary Club of St. John’s East, said it’s the club’s second year for sponsoring the Christmas dinner.
“As a club we like to do things that are sort of more hands on as opposed to just writing a cheque and giving it to someone,” he said. “We have some new members here tonight so they are getting a sense of what we are all about.”
Barbour said taking part in such an event and meeting so many newcomers to Canada reminds you how good residents of Canada have it.
“You learn how challenging it must be for a lot of these people to walk into this environment with no language skills and no employment, and make a go of it,” he said. “It’s a pretty tough thing. So anyone who has managed to get their family here and made it this far deserves a pat on the back. I think we should be doing more as communities to welcome them and make them as comfortable as we can possibly make them.
“I often wonder if these Christmas gifts are the only ones that some of these children will receive. Everyone is very polite and thankful for what they received, there’s no rowdiness. They are all pulling together and it’s a real nice, peaceful event. The world needs to be more like this.”