Opening Our Hearts to Newcomers

The Central Vancouver Island Multicultural Society
Coming to Canada as an immigrant or government-assisted refugee is challenging. But in Nanaimo, the Central Vancouver Island Multicultural Society (CVIMS) is there to lend a helping hand. Sophia Wasylinko speaks to staff and current and former clients about the ways the Society helps newcomers adjust to life in Canada.
The CVIMS booth at VIU DiscoverFest
Carey K (Settlement Team Lead) with unnamed visitor at the CVIMS booth at VIU DiscoverFest (October 2023).
Photo by CVIMS.
“Multicultural Society” and “CVIMS” are used interchangeably when discussing the Central Vancouver Island Multicultural Society. 

Semi Jo enters her apartment, tired after a long day at work. She sees an email in her inbox about her Early Childhood Education (ECE) license. Holding her breath, she opens it and scans the message. Once, then twice.

A moment later, Jo leaps from her chair in happiness and relief. She can transfer her teaching degree from South Korea to the World Education Services (WES) centre in Saskatoon, and from there to a BC license.

She can now teach in Canada.

Moving to a new country is never easy, especially when you have no family there and don’t speak the language well (or at all).

According to Statista, Canada welcomed 468,817 immigrants between 2022 and 2023. Canada has pledged to welcome 51,615 refugees over the next three years, including religious and ethnic minorities, at-risk LGBTQIA2S+ individuals, and women and girls in precarious situations.

But inflation has led to living costs rising for everyone. And despite Canada’s image as a welcoming country, recent surveys suggest more Canadians believe there is too much immigration and are therefore less friendly towards immigrants.

Naturally, newcomers may become overwhelmed with fear for the future. So where can you go for help?

For people in Nanaimo, one answer is the Central Vancouver Island Multicultural Society (CVIMS). According to its most recent impact report, it assisted 1,934 clients between April 2022 and March 2023. The most represented countries were Ukraine, China, India, Syria, and the Philippines.

Immigrant Settlement Worker Rim Shin has worked at the Multicultural Society for 15 years, where she helps people from different backgrounds and situations. 

I don’t know who is coming to our door [or] what kinds of issues they are bringing, so every day’s a mystery.
—Rim Shin, Immigrant Settlement Worker
Many of her clients are government-assisted refugees, including those from Syria, Ukraine, Afghanistan, and Sudan. Other visitors include young immigrants with professional work experience and temporary foreign workers. International students use the centre as well, including adults who bring their families during the summer and graduate students applying for permanent residency (PR).

The CVIMS provides information and resources that range from English language practice and interpreting to job training and finding housing. “[If] somebody doesn’t have a job, they cannot find a place to stay, and then it impacts their mental health. So it’s intertwined,” Shin explains. 

Through the Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC) classes, adults can practice their English one-on-one with volunteers while exchanging their own language and culture. There are eight levels and a “Home Study” (online) option. 

Children’s programs include: Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY), previously mentioned in The Navigator article “Like a Superhero”; Settlement Workers in Schools (SWIS); Youth Connections for ages 12–25; and an on-site daycare.

Facebook marketplace listing with photo of kitchen. This 1 bed 1 bath apartment is listed for $1,789 per month.
L-R: Jina Y (SWIS) and volunteer (name withheld) at the Nanaimo Child Development Family Wellness Hub on November 8, 2023.
Photo by CVIMS.
CVIMS has additional services in place for people struggling with their mental health. There are licensed counselors as well as women’s groups. Soon, there will also be a men’s group.

“Sometimes [newcomers have] a lot of stress, because they don’t speak English [or it] was not their choice to come to Canada,” Shin says. “It can be very challenging, so we provide some places to share.”

One challenge the CVIMS faces is providing a large number of people with the information and resources they need to start the expensive process of applying for PR. Another is finding homes amid the ongoing housing crisis. Some temporary foreign workers have unethical employers, but instead of leaving, they stay in their jobs until they can apply for PR.

There are also domestic violence cases, especially in close-knit families where women have many children and are often blamed by their relatives for their situation instead of the abusive partners. According to the Women’s Shelters Canada More Than A Bed Final Report (2019), 73 percent of groups served by violence against women (VAW) shelters were immigrant and refugee women.

Finally, some people don’t discover the CVIMS until much later. “I want newcomers to know [about] us as soon as possible,” Shin says. “Then we can support them from the beginning.” Once the connections are made, the centre becomes a “base camp” for immigrants. 

Shin is always amazed by her clients. “They are extraordinary people to move from their country…. They are very resilient and open to any opportunities,” she says. “Their children are growing here under a safer environment, and then they have more hope for the future.”

Semi Jo is one of them. She used to be a secondary school teacher in Korea, but after divorcing her husband (who demanded full custody of their two daughters), she came to Canada in 2019. She received her PR after two years working part-time at a sushi restaurant, and in March 2022, she was able to bring her girls to Nanaimo. 

Jo’s ex hasn’t contacted them since March 2023. “I don’t hate him,” she says. “I appreciate him, because he allowed me to bring my daughters.”

Jo lived on savings for the first six months before finding another part-time job. She went to the Multicultural Society to register her children at their new school. She has nothing but good things to say about the CVIMS. “They do their best. Very kind … very polite to the newcomers.”

Staff including Shin, Charlee Touchette (Employment Team Lead), and Jillian Yun (Language Services Team Lead) helped Jo search for a stable job in her field, prepare her resume, and practice for interviews. They also got her registered for LINC to improve her English skills and provided activities for the children, including free camps and shared bicycles. 

In addition to these and other resources, CVIMS helped Jo find new housing. Her previous landlords had raised rent by $200, but with advice from the CVIMS, Jo filed a dispute with the BC Residential Tenancy Branch (RTB) who ultimately ruled in her favor. She and her family moved to a new apartment for which she pays 30 percent of her income.

Jo now works as an ECE at Tiny Hoppers Early Learning. She plans to take English as a Second Language (ESL) classes at VIU and work towards an Infant Toddler and Special Needs (ITSN) Educator Certificate. The certificate would make her eligible for a $3000 annual grant for the next three years. She’s also applied for her Canadian citizenship.

“I’m very proud of Canada,” she says. “I’m very satisfied. My pride is higher than before.”

For some people, the relationship with the Multicultural Society doesn’t end once they’ve settled in.

Facebook marketplace listing with photo of kitchen. This 1 bed 1 bath apartment is listed for $1,789 per month.
Mojtaba Aliyari (far left) and staff at Wallace Pharmacy.
Photo by CVIMS.
Mojtaba Aliyari is a former client who came from Turkey. The CVIMS folks met him on his first day in Nanaimo (October 25, 2022). He’s been a Refugee Settlement Worker with them now for six months, helping newcomers since day one: picking them up from the airport, getting their SIM card and SIN, and helping them get comfortable in a new country. Aliyari did similar volunteer work in Turkey, where he acted as interpreter, showed new people around, and gave them resources.

Of course, it’s not always easy helping the refugees who come to the CVIMS. There’s the lack of affordable housing, Nanaimo’s less-than-stellar bus system, and a scarcity of interpreters available for medical appointments (something that other community organizations do provide).

Despite these challenges, there’s always something to celebrate. For example, the mornings typically start with trying to help clients, and by the end of the day, they’ve worked together to find a solution, or the issue resolves by itself.

Aliyari loves that many of the staff were also once refugees, which creates a diverse and welcoming environment. 

The Multicultural Society is very multicultural by itself. You never feel outside of the room when you’re around them.
—Mojtaba Aliyari, CVIMS Refugee Settlement Worker 
Sara Kishawi came from Gaza in 2011 so her father, Sharif, could study in VIU’s MBA program. She has few memories of that time but remembers sitting in the centre’s daycare while her parents filled out paperwork on their first day. She also remembers her mother, Ghadir, leaving for LINC classes. Ghadir currently works as a Community Engagement Worker, while Sharif served on the CVIMS’ Board of Directors, including as President, from 2012 to 2016.

Sara also used to volunteer at the Multicultural Society, first as Student Leader in Youth Connections (which she’d participated in the previous summer) and then as a Youth Activity Worker. “Our various interactions with the Multicultural Society [have] built this community that I was comfortable applying at,” she says. 

The CVIMS’ youth program in particular helps children from different backgrounds integrate into Canadian society while bonding with each other and practicing their English (often the only language they share). 

“It [creates] such a good environment for the kids to get to know each other, [learn about] other cultures, and explore Nanaimo,” Sara says. 

Once, she took her group of 11–18 year-olds to a park in Parksville, where another summer camp of 6–10 year-olds was running, leading to some adorable interactions.

“It was really fun working with the kids [who], when they don’t know the same language, just attempt to interact,” she explains. “Eventually, they’ll find a way to communicate, even if it’s just playing basketball or a game. Kids always find that common ground.”

Sara wishes more people knew how much the Multicultural Society offers and took advantage of its services, or were open to working or even volunteering with them. 

“I think [they] don’t realize how many services can be provided by such organizations,” she says. “It’s not just your stop as soon as you come, and that’s it.”

The CIVIMS runs workshops and events throughout the year. They recently hosted their Newcomer Wellness Fair on February 8, connecting newcomers with healthcare and wellness providers. They also run booths at events such as the Canada Day celebration, RockVIU, and the Nanaimo Night Market.

Facebook marketplace listing with photo of kitchen. This 1 bed 1 bath apartment is listed for $1,789 per month.
CVIMS Newcomer Wellness Fair held February 8, 2024.
Photo by CVIMS.
The Multicultural Society is always looking for volunteers to help immigrants practice their English or translate for them. Shin would especially like to see more VIU students volunteer at the children’s summer camps.

“It looks great on a resume, but [more importantly] it builds people’s own self, how they interact with other different cultures,” Sara says. “I think that type of work is necessary for people to be more accepting of others.” 

“There’s always a way to support people,” Aliyari says. “We’re always there to help newcomers and anyone who needs [it].”

Jo hopes her daughters will volunteer in the future to repay the Multicultural Society for the assistance they received. She also hopes people going through similar struggles will be inspired by her experiences. “I think there are a lot of people like me. So if somebody is reading [this story], they will be encouraged: ‘Semi did it. Semi did it successfully.’”

If you’d like to apply as a volunteer, contact Jansait Qughondouqa (Community Engagement Team Lead) at 250-753-6911 (ext. 108) or at community@cvims.org. Note that registration is on hold until April 1, 2024.

Editor

Sophia is in her third year at The Navigator and fifth (final!) year of the Creative Writing and Journalism program. Outside of The Nav, she volunteers as a Peer Helper and is doing another year of Portal Magazine. This summer, a solo trip to Japan ignited Sophia’s wanderlust. She hopes to return soon, next time with a stop in Korea.

Next Up…

Get Published With Us

Not only will we pay you with a cheque,
we'll pay you with "exposure".