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by Claire Handley
"... nationality is not so important. The most important thing is to stick with good people no matter where they come from.
When immigrants or refugees arrive in Canada from a war-torn country, especially one divided along ethnic lines, what barriers do they face as they establish Canada as their new home? How does the ethnic conflict in their country of origin affect their settlement here?
Marianne van der Meij is a Settlement Worker at the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre. Her job is to help immigrants and refugees with all aspects of their new life in Canada other than finding work and learning English.
In Marianne's experience, one of the biggest barriers to the settlement of people arriving from war-torn countries is that they may be focused on the situation at home. Many may still have relatives and friends in their country of origin and are anxious about the health and safety of those they have left behind. They may also be struggling to come to grips with what they themselves endured during the conflict. While understandable, this preoccupation with home and past experiences can make it difficult for newcomers to focus on establishing their life in Canada.
For Marianne, the key to overcoming these barriers is a combination of empathetic listening and on-going counseling on practical matters. Perhaps most important is honouring peoples' experiences by allowing them to tell their stories. Once this need is met, newcomers tend to be more receptive to suggestions about what they can or need to do.
Another obstacle to settlement is that these newcomers may be fearful of those in uniforms or in positions of authority. This can impact their ability to benefit from services offered by people in many official positions from immigration officials to police officers to government financial assistance workers.
There is no set amount of time that it takes someone to overcome these barriers and be receptive to what is being offered. Every case is different. According to Marianne, "It depends on how deep the trauma is, what has been experienced, whether there is still a loved one left behind. It depends on somebody's flexibility. It depends of some of the other barriers that can affect settlement no matter where you are from - language, level of education, etcetera. So, it's very individual, you can not set a time. It could even be ongoing."
With continuous support and patience, newcomers are able to focus on seeking solutions for themselves and taking advantages of the services being offered by officials, agencies and the community.
With clients from countries torn apart along ethnic lines, inter-ethnic conflict can pose practical problems for settlement workers. They must always be mindful of the circumstances of their clients when selecting an interpreter or connecting the client with community resources. In one situation, a couple from the former Yugoslavia felt unable to communicate their experiences and needs through a volunteer interpreter because of his ethnic origin. Ultimately, settlement workers must be very careful about who they involve in the settlement process and always seek the consent of the client before bringing a resource person in.
Is the continuance or replay of inter-ethnic conflict always an issue in the settlement process? Not necessarily. Originally from Kosavo, Lilo came to Canada 12 years ago. Since arriving, he has informally helped others settle here. At the end of 1998, Lilo and his wife Anna went to a party with 5 other families who had recently come to Canada from the former Yugoslavia. There were Serbians, Albanians, and Croatians at the party and everyone got along with each other. Who they were, not what they were, was important. This reflects Lilo's philosophy to deal with people one to one, regardless of their ethnicity. If someone is a nice person, he is open to friendship.
Former Yugoslavians get together in Victoria
Felix arrived in Canada from Croatia a few years ago. He estimates that there are now about 100 people living in Victoria from all parts and all ethnic groups of the former Yugoslavia. Like Lilo, he feels that ethnic-conflict is something that most of these people left behind when they came here.
When asked why ethnic conflict doesn't con- tinue in Canada, Felix suggests that people are focused on survival: where they are going, not where they have come from. They are concentrating on day to day issues like making a living. He also suggests that conflict may not happen because people know they cannot get away with it. While crimes and violence may go unpunished back home, they will not be tolerated by authorities here.
Even though ethnic conflict has not affected his settlement in Canada, Felix does admit that it is difficult to imagine having a close friendship with someone of Serbian background because of the years of animosity and ethnic intolerance engineered in the former Yugoslavia and what he ex-perienced there. "But," Felix continues, "nationality is not so important. The most important thing is to stick with good people no matter where they come from. In Canada, people are exposed to different cultures, points of view and ethnic groups. I think this is really good ... especially for the kids."
Claire Handley is a Human Resource Consultant specialising in diversity and harassment discrimination prevention and an aspiring trapeze artist.
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