The determination Marwan shows in his efforts to adapt to Canadian life is something to behold.
The 39-year-old Iraqi man has reason. His past suffering has led him to a deep sense of gratitude to Canada, and he wants to integrate into the culture of his adopted country. Marwan left Iraq about 18 months ago to escape the daily threat of violence, the same violence that took the life of his younger brother who was murdered. As a journalist, he faced threats on his life regularly.
Now in Ottawa with his wife and three children, two of whom were born in Canada, Marwan was eager to take part in the Matching Program offered by the Catholic Centre for Immigrants.
“I wanted to understand the Canadian people,” he says. “I wanted to know what everyday life in Canada is like.”
The Matching Program provides one-on-one support to help newcomers adjust and integrate into life in Canada by introducing them 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.
Marwan was matched with long-time volunteer Bill, who says thanks to Marwan’s dedication, he’s going to fit in nicely. “He reads everything he can get his hands on. Then we’ll meet and he’ll ask me questions.”
When he first arrived in Ottawa, one of the first big adjustments was the weather. “Everything was strange,” Marwan remembers. “There was so much snow and ice. But I felt comfortable. This was my choice.” Eighteen months later, as he sat outside on a very humid and hot mid-September day, he joked about missing the ice and the cold.
For Marwan and other newcomers, the Matching Program provides an opportunity to learn about Canadian culture and traditions, community resources, recreational opportunities, social/job networks, and practising conversational English.
For Bill and other volunteers, it’s an opportunity to learn about the cultures and traditions of other countries and become familiar with the skills and knowledge immigrants and refugees bring to Canada. It also makes Canadians more aware of the challenges newcomers face.
Bill lives his life with the following scripture: “To whom much is given, much is expected in return.”
When he realized he had time to volunteer, he did his research. “I wanted to be with an organization that was broad, that helped people integrate into the whole community and just their own where they become isolated.”
Bill, who is a pensioner, has been matched before. He still keeps in touch with his two previous matches; one is from Mexico and the other is from Colombia. He adds the Matching Program is a great opportunity for other pensioners who have some time to volunteer.
He describes his role as teaching “street language” although his daughter likes to remind him he’s teaching newcomers the art of conversation. For Bill, it’s more than just teaching words. It’s also about teaching context. A word or a phrase can mean two different things depending on when or where it’s said. There’s also an emphasis on reading and writing and expressions.
He adds Canadians need to be reminded that many newcomers have a lot to offer. “People assume if you don’t know English, you’re stupid. Most Canadians don’t realize how smart newcomers are,” Bill says. “They had lives, they raised children, did the same sorts of things we did, had the same sort of lives we lived.”
Marwan is still building his new Canadian life. Two of his three children have been born in Canada and he has reunited with an older brother and his mother who came to Ottawa seven years ago.
“There is no reason to go back to Iraq,” he says, adding he hates how violent his country has become. “There is no hope of living in peace there.”
He describes Bill as a father figure. “Bill is very open-minded. I can talk to him about everything.”
Bill says Marwan knows more about Canadian history, particularly Indigenous history, than most Canadians.
Once he masters the language, Marwan wants to work in international relations and possibly with the Canadian government.