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Supporting new immigrants and refugees

Supporting new immigrants and refugees

Posted on: September 25, 2012
Author: Jennifer Sharpe

From left to right: Amira Zoric, Cultural Links Team Leader; Mark Urban, Cultural Links host family; Mark Alison Omar, Somali refugee and Cultural Links participant. Photo by Aminah Syed.

Though never having been to school before, Benjamin, Hanneh, and Abel Alison were enrolled in grades four, five, and seven.

For them, Catholic Social Services' Cultural Links Youth Program was a crucial part of helping them adapt to going to school, a new culture and language, and catching up with their work. The program matches immigrants and refugees with local families, who welcome them and help them adjust.

"We were locked from the world we came from," says Mark Alison Omar, the children's father. Mark has lived in Edmonton for just over a year with his wife and four of their 12 children. The Somali family came to Canada for freedom after spending three years in a refugee camp, and were forced to leave behind their other eight children.

Mark is deeply appreciative for the chance to come to Canada. Although the transition is challenging, it has been easier with the help of the Urban family, their host family. The Urbans have hosted many families through the Cultural Links program, helping in any way they can—whether it's a call out to friends and colleagues who may have a used washer and dryer they would be willing to donate to a new Canadian family, or just taking the time to answer questions. "It's very gratifying to help kick-start their new lives," says Mark Urban.

Amira Zoric agrees. "It's the people who make you feel welcome and help you stay," says Zoric, who has worked as a Team Leader for the program since 1997. Having first discovered the program as a Bosnian refugee along with her three-year-old son, she enjoys helping others in similar situations. "It's moving when you see people after five years and how well they have done," she says.

A big part of the program is practicing English, and just having that one friend that you are not ashamed to ask questions like "What is GST?" Another aspect is the Homework Club for youth, which focuses not only on homework, but practicing conversational English, making friends, and building self-esteem. This is especially valuable for those, like the three youngest Alison children, who have never attended school.

"Now they translate for me and my wife," remarks Mark Alison Omar of his children.

Cultural Links relies heavily on volunteers and donations from the Catholic Social Services' Sign of Hope campaign, individuals, and organizations like ATB Financial.

"When Marc Barylo from Catholic Social Services met with us and told us about the Cultural Links program, we were compelled to go to the Immigration Services office to check it out in action and meet the people involved," says Sandra Huculak, Director of Corporate Social Responsibility for ATB.

"Honestly, we had no idea the program existed, but the experience was eye-opening. We take pride in finding ways to help make the community a better place to live, and Cultural Links clearly does that."

To learn more about the Cultural Links program, visit the Catholic Social Services website