When Gulalai Habib moved to Canada as a refugee from a war-torn country 20 years ago, she made some of her first friends and connections at her local neighborhood house. Within three months of her arrival, she started helping other newcomers, while bonding with the community over conversations and cups of tea. It helped her turn Burnaby into her home.
In contrast, newcomers sometimes feel lost in the halls of immigrant- and refugee-serving agencies. Even though the settlement sector was built with community in mind, administrative and bureaucratic systems can get in the way. In spite of the best efforts of settlement workers, some newcomers wind up ducking in and out of settlement offices for appointments without lingering to form meaningful connections. In other cases, newcomers may feel a sense of being bounced from here to there, as they’re referred from service to service across the city to access resources they need.
A growing number of settlement agencies are responding to this challenge by grounding settlement work in community organizations. Newcomers can now visit the Vancouver Public Library, for example, for free programs and resources to help them find jobs, explore careers and start businesses. Meanwhile, many neighbourhood houses run settlement services alongside community services like childcare, food banks and cultural events.
“It’s important for long-term integration that newcomers are not separated, but engaged and integrated with the community,” says Habib, who currently works as the Director of Settlement and Employment Programs at Kiwassa Neighbourhood House in Vancouver.
The results of community-oriented initiatives indicate the approach helps ease the instability and uncertainty associated with settling in a new country, according to research by PeaceGeeks. Such programs also allow newcomers to expand their networks, find volunteer opportunities that can lead to work, and form friendships that ease the loneliness and sense of displacement that may come with a big move. In fact, the approach is so powerful that the settlement sector should consider grounding its efforts in community wherever possible.
This recommendation is based on a collaborative research project carried out by PeaceGeeks to figure out how the sector could move towards a Settlement 2.0 — a more innovative, agile and effective settlement sector. The research included consultations and interviews with more than 80 stakeholders, including workers from settlement organizations of varying sizes from urban and rural areas across Canada. In our interactions, successful examples of settlement services grounded in community came up again and again.
Communities across Canada, for example, have found that situating settlement workers within schools is an effective way to integrate newcomer children and their families in a community setting they already visit. In BC, the Surrey School District has taken its settlement initiative to the next level with an English Language Learner Welcome Centre. The centre has helped more than 12,000 newcomers integrate into both the school system and the wider community with services like language assessments and community events. Perhaps most importantly, the setup makes it easier for newcomer parents to connect with other families and practice English — all while ensuring their children receive support to help them integrate into the school system.
Settlement services can also create a sense of community through design. For example, the Immigrant Services Society of BC’s Welcome Centre, which opened in 2016, was purposefully designed to build community. The centre integrates housing for refugees, settlement services, English classes, a medical clinic, a preschool and childcare centre, and more. In this way, the Centre addresses the varied needs of newcomers in one place where they can connect with one another.
Settlement services grounded in community are effective because they address newcomers’ needs in a holistic way and help them form deeper connections with those around them. Not only do newcomers become more familiar with Canada, but locals get to know them too. This approach recognizes that integration is a two-way process — one that brings together newcomers and Canadians in community centres, schools and public spaces. At the end of the day, settlement happens in community.