Eleanor and Amira are sisters. But they only met 10 months ago.
Eleanor, a volunteer with the Catholic Centre for Immigrants, met Amira through the Matching Program shortly after Amira moved to Ottawa from Damascus, Syria.
In Damascus, she had been a director of education for a number of elementary schools. She had once visited Canada in 2009. With her son and grandchildren already living in Ottawa, coming here was an obvious choice, but Amira knew she needed to practise her English or she’d become isolated in her one-bedroom apartment. Making friends and adjusting to Canadian life were her top priorities.
“I want to be active,” she says. “I don’t want to be alone.”
The Matching Program provides one-on-one support to help newcomers adjust and integrate into life in Canada by introducing recent immigrants and refugees to established members of the Ottawa community. Matches between newcomers and volunteers can be one-on-one, family-to-family, or one volunteer with a newcomer family.
The program helps newcomers learn about Canadian culture and traditions, community resources, introduces them to recreational opportunities and helps them expand their social and job networks.
Since newcomers and volunteers see each other often, it’s an ideal way to practise conversational English in a relaxed, natural way.
Before the match was official, Amira met with Eleanor, as well as Anneke Van Nooten, the program manager. Great care is taken to ensure the best possible match. Ten months later, neither woman has any doubt about their match, especially since it’s led to a strong friendship.
“Eleanor is a very beautiful and wonderful woman,” says Amira. “She’s my best friend here in Canada. I consider her a sister.”
Like a lot of Canadians, Eleanor became interested in refugee and immigrant issues after the Syrian civil war started to receive more media coverage.
She describes herself as initially shy and reticent. But as the stories revealed the atrocities happening in Syria, she started to change. “I became angry at Canada’s response to the refugee situation in Syria,” she says. This was in 2015 before Justin Trudeau became prime minister. After the Liberals took power, they fulfilled a campaign promise to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada within three months.
Eleanor says it’s been a moving experience to get to know Amira. They visit one another regularly and Eleanor has developed a taste for Arabic coffee. She says her next project is to learn how to cook a few Syrian dishes.
The more time she spends with Amira, the more she admires her. “I’ve learned that women in Arabic cultures are incredibly strong.”
Eleanor also helps Amira with day-to-day responsibilities, like getting to medical appointments. Although Amira’s English is very good after a little more than a year, she says it’s comforting to have a friend who can explain any terms she doesn’t understand.
Amira says with Eleanor’s help, she is learning more about life in Canada and hopes to work soon. While she and her husband were raising their children, Amira completed her university degree in education. She describes herself as a very ambitious person.
“I want to do things in this country. I don’t want to sit still.” Amira says. “Canadians are very kind and it’s a beautiful country.”