Growing number of newcomers settling in Calgary ‘a blessing’ and a challenge, immigration society head says

March 23, 2018

By CBC News |

The number of newcomers to Canada choosing to make Calgary their home is steadily rising, and that’s both beneficial and challenging for the city, according to one local expert.

Fariborz Birjandian, who heads the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, says that 15 years ago Calgary used to welcome three to four thousand newcomers and refugees per year. Now that number is up around 20,000 and is expected to keep growing.

“It’s a blessing. I think it’s good news, but it depends on how we are going to position ourselves,” he said.

“How well we are going to understand their needs to make sure we become efficient in how we develop a process for them to settle and integrate, rather than just saying, ‘that’s not our problem.’ It is becoming everybody’s issue.”

Birjandian is co-chair of the Metropolis Conference: Immigration Futures, which is Canada’s largest annual meeting on immigration and integration issues. About 800 participants are gathered this week at the Westin Hotel.

He says Calgary has earned an international reputation alongside Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal as an attractive city for immigrants to settle in and build new lives.

“Now when people want to come to Canada, Calgary is one of the places they look at,” he said.

Birjandian noted that Alberta has been taking in more immigrants than B.C. for the past seven years. In Calgary, this has meant new challenges for both the health-care and school systems, he said.

University of Calgary researcher Dania El Chaar told the conference that one important challenge is learning how to effectively teach an ever-increasingly diverse classroom.

El Chaar and others have been speaking with young Syrian refugees in Calgary and Winnipeg.

They’ve now written a teacher’s guide filled with stories, exercises and lesson plans.

“Some have been four years without any education, you know, picking potatoes from the ground or working in the supermarket putting things in … shopping bags,” she said.

“So if you put them in this context, even though you can’t cater for each and every one, but then at least you would have the awareness, you would have the background for that.”

El Chaar says it’s important for teachers to have empathy — and a lot more training — to deal with the complex needs many refugees bring to the classroom.

Anoop Sidhu, a master’s of education student at the University of Toronto who also presented at the conference, said some teachers still try to assimilate refugees and immigrant children instead of embracing their differences.

“And that could just include using their language,” she said.

“I’ve worked with teachers who have encouraged their kids to use Arabic in the classroom, write it down and then work together to translate it to English. That way you sort of have a dual identity text that they’ve written.”

The immigration conference wraps up on Saturday.

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