By Shabana Ansari
Mitra Ghaffari arrived in Canada six years ago with nothing but a post-graduate degree in English and a strong belief in Canada’s liberal and inclusive culture.
Living at a women’s shelter and completely on her own in a new country where she knew no one, she was going through a difficult and uncertain time.
“I was quite clueless about my future and had no idea about how to make a fresh start,” says Mitra who then decided to familiarize herself with the tools and resources available to newcomers in Ottawa.
Her first stop was the Bruyère Centre for Immigrants building that houses the Catholic Centre for Immigrants (CCI), World Skills (WS), and Immigrant Women’s Services Ottawa (IWSO).
“It was like stepping into a sanctuary where people rallied around me and offered not just words of comfort but also took an active part in helping me adjust to my new life.” And even though Mitra was fluent in English – she was a tutor and lecturer in her native Iran – she says it felt good to meet others who spoke her mother tongue, Farsi.
One of her fondest memories of her early days in Canada is a trip to Gatineau Park with other newcomers.
“CCI has some amazing free recreational programs which provide opportunities to newcomers to step out of their homes, meet each other, and enjoy their new country.
At the same time, it helps them cope with the extreme weather conditions and be busy even during winter!”
Mitra recalls that she received her first pair of skates from CCI.
“They invited me to skating lessons every Thursday evening, as part of the Community Connections Program, which encouraged me to learn skating. I still have those skates and use them to this day!”
As she explored her new country and made new friends, Mitra’s passion for giving back to the community was reignited. “I rediscovered my life’s purpose and started helping others in any way I could.”
She started volunteering with the organizations that helped her find her feet in the early days and continues to work as a language interpreter for IWSO, helping immigrant and refugee women who cannot communicate in English to find support.
Mitra also took up a voluntary role of Program Manager for CCI’s Volunteer Infusion Program which helps to connect newcomers to volunteering opportunities at various organizations in a field based on their education, previous work experience and personal interests.
Currently, she works as a Recreation Activities Coordinator for the City of Ottawa.
Mitra recommends that all newcomers should connect to at least one immigrant-serving organization which would then refer them to other services and programs, specific and relevant to their individual needs.
“Sometimes newcomers can be confused about where to start. And I want to assure them that they are not alone.
There are some amazing people and organizations in Ottawa who are willing to give as much help as you need.”
She points out that the right approach for newcomers is to start striking social and professional rapport with local Canadians.
“Making friends or working only with people of your own nationality, culture and language often alienates newcomers.”
She also advises newcomers to never hesitate to ask for help. “Seek out those who can either support you directly or refer you to someone who can.”
Mitra emphasizes that being patient, persistent and flexible in their goals and expectations can help newcomers to lead a happier and more successful life.
“Reach out to people, ask questions if you don’t understand something, be on the lookout for new opportunities and keep updating your social and professional skills.”
She also urges newcomers to “volunteer! volunteer! volunteer!”
“This way, you expand your network, solidify your new status in the community, find new friends and educate yourself with the Canadian organizational culture.
And do not forget to familiarize yourself and continue learning about the customs and traditions of your new country which you now call home!”