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United Way Blog: Jennifer Watts on what immigrants bring to our city and how we can be more welcoming

From the United Way Community Exchange Blog. September 20, 2018. 

ISANS inspiring video, I Am Today, features three young refugees who are building a strong future in Canada. 

At United Way Halifax, we believe in building strong communities where everyone has the opportunity to thrive. Many neighbourhoods in our city and province are becoming more diverse, as immigrants come from across the globe.

We asked Jennifer Watts, CEO of ISANS, some questions about what immigrants bring to our city and country and how we can be more welcoming. Her answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.

United Way: What are some of the myths or misconceptions that we have about newcomers and refugees?

Jennifer Watts: One of the misconceptions about immigrants arriving in Canada is that they lack language skills or they are not as well educated. However, immigrants actually are more likely to speak more languages, and have attained a masters or doctorate degree at a rate twice that of the Canadian-born residents. They have a wide variety of skills and educational backgrounds, and are ready to support the economic growth and diversification to strengthen our communities.

Sometimes there is a concern that with more people coming to our community, we don’t have enough jobs and services for everyone. The reality is that we don’t have enough people here to support the services our community requires. We need immigrants to help our economy and to build capacity, especially in rural areas. It’s not like a finite pie, where people take a piece and then there’s less for everyone else. With immigration, the pie gets bigger for everyone; there is more to offer everyone when we welcome immigrants.

UW: Outside of filling the economic benefit of immigration, what other benefits do immigrants bring to a community?

JW: They bring so much more than economic benefits such as successfully starting small businesses in our communities and bringing investment.

They bring volunteers to schools and community organizations. They bring cultural opportunities that we wouldn’t have otherwise, which makes this a very desirable place to live for those who appreciate the traditions and history of Nova Scotia but also the international life immigrants bring.

Immigration also open up discussions on important topics, like our values. Many of our values are the same: respect for elders, the importance of family, an appreciation of safety and security. Yet through understanding and hearing different experiences, it helps our community reflect, learn and grow on what values are most important to us all.

UW: Isolation, anxiety and confusion are just some of the experiences newcomers may face when they come to HRM. How can we make our community welcoming?

JW: There are lots of different things you can do to welcome new people to the community. The most basic is just making an intentional effort to say hello, smile, strike up conversation, ask people if they need help. It’s a way to just show people who may be feeling isolated that people do notice, do care, are interested and want you to be part of the neighbourhood.

Get to know neighbours by asking about their interests and give them information so they can get more involved. Let them know about community events and activities. It helps them understand the rhythm and life of the community.

We also encourage people to attend cultural events and festivals, read books by authors from different parts of the world or attend international films when they’re screening here. Volunteering can make a huge difference as well, through ISANS, YMCA or some of the programs the library offers. It’s an opportunity to get to know people on a personal level.

We also offer training here at ISANS. Building Intercultural Competence is a one-day workshop that people can take here, and the Welcome Ambassador program focuses on setting up projects and working in communities to make them more welcoming to newcomers.

UW: How do all communities benefit when we have supportive immigration policies and a welcoming community mindset?

JW: When we are more welcoming to newcomers, we create a community that is more welcoming for everyone. When we work on improving services for newcomers like affordable housing, this work is done in partnership with other community organizations. So the impact will benefit marginalized people whether they are new to our community or they’ve lived here their whole life.

Throughout history, Canada has mostly been seen as a country that has welcomed people and understood that when they arrive here, they are on a pathway to citizenship. Our country has greatly benefitted from immigration throughout history, but we still have to work to retain newcomers.

The best thing that we can do is to build connections early in the settlement process. It’s those personal connections into the community, into neighbourhoods, that leave people feeling like “this is my home. I care about the people around me and they care about me.”

ISANS is a United Way Funded agency that works with newcomers to help them build a future in Canada.