Laying out a welcome mat

The tin soldier on New Westminster
The tin soldier on New Westminster's waterfront may be a welcome site for tourists, but Eman Elmasri of the Lower Mainland Purpose Society, and John Stark, the city's senior social planner, have been working to make the city a more welcoming place for new immigrants.

The giant tin soldier along New Westminster’s waterfront may be a welcoming sight for visitors and tourists. But new immigrants looking to settle in the city, find employment, lay down roots, need more than a ready photo op.

The Lower Mainland Purpose Society, along with the City of New Westminster and partners from various businesses and institutions like the Chamber of Commerce and Douglas College are wrapping up a year-long initiative under the province’s Welcoming Communities Program aimed at making the city more inclusive and receptive to new immigrants. Their achievements will be celebrated at a special community event at Century House on Feb. 15 with food and interactive activities from a variety of cultures.

More importantly, the project could eventually lead to the creation of a welcome centre for new immigrants to the city, said John Stark, New West’s senior social planner. “That’s the ultimate dream.”

Between 2006 and 2011 new immigrants comprised 61.3 per cent of the city’s total population growth. In 2011, more than a third of the city’s residents were immigrants, and 21 per cent of those had arrived in the previous five years.

That’s created unique challenges for the city, said Stark. Those new immigrants need access to resources to help them find a place to live, get employment, improve their english skills, integrate into their new surroundings.

The city established a multicultural advisory committee, strengthened its multicultural policy and participated in the Welcoming and Inclusive Communities and Workplaces Program to help new immigrants’ integration. It also undertook a survey of new immigrants and refugees to learn about their settlement experiences.

The results of that survey helped guide the work of the Welcoming and Inclusive New West Community Partnership Table that was formed last year.

Of the 224 immigrants who responded in the survey, 70 per cent said they had difficulties finding a job or suitable training to get employment. So the partnership table charged the Chamber of Commerce with consulting more than 200 employers in the city to identify barriers to employment for new immigrants as well as promising practices to recruit, integrate and retain them.

“By having a diverse workforce they can better serve a diverse community,” said Stark. “New immigrants bring in new ideas.”

That’s led to the creation of a guide to help employers create a more welcoming environment for new immigrants including adjusting their interview process for new hires to allow for cultural differences.

For instance, to some cultures a firm handshake and direct gaze into someone’s eyes can be an insult said Stark.

The guide is also a resource that can connect employers to immigrant organizations that might be able to help them address a shortage in a particular skill or expertise.

A second prong of the program was to assess how welcoming various institutional spaces are to new immigrants. Places like city hall, Douglas College and the police department were visited by 24 new immigrants to test how easy it was for them to find their way around, get the information or service they needed, understand instructions they were given.

“This work has a snowball effect,” said Stark, as the results could lead to new signage, brochures produced in multiple languages, better training for frontline staff, even more diverse hiring.

Finally, discussion groups of new immigrants were formed so they could share their experiences, promote dialogue and learn from each other.

The end result, said Stark, is to break down barriers.

“We all come with preconceived notions but we have to learn how to park them and create a receptive environment,” said Stark.

While provincial funding for the program has ended, Stark said the work will continue with federal support.


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