HOW TO HELP
A beautiful journey
It's of the biggest questions faced by a sponsor, or anyone who volunteers with newcomers: how to help? What's the right way of offering guidance - and when? And how much is too much?
Accompanying someone on the journey to getting established in a new country is one of life's greatest experiences and opportunities. Ask a group of private sponsors for their thoughts, and some of them are likely to burst into tears of joy, just thinking about their own fond memories of the family they helped settle.
The same goes for everyday volunteers who have the good fortune of supporting newcomers as they look for jobs, housing, furniture or friends.
Once you start, you don't want to stop. It's that rewarding.
At the same time there is a lot of risk of getting it wrong. You can imagine the scenario. A family of refugees uses their courage and resourcefulness to escape a war zone and survive for years in a hostile country... only to arrive in Canada and finds themselves treated like hapless children by their well-meaning sponsors.
They may be robbed of their decision-making powers through their lack of language skills or understanding of the local culture - but also by the sponsors who are convinced they know what is right and best for the family. And if the family makes its own choices, and they turn out badly, the resentment will run both ways.
When talking about the best way to help a newcomer, who better to ask than... a newcomer?
Ibrahim Bess is one of those rare and wonderful individuals who can view the issue from both sides. Having just arrived in Canada in early October 2018, he is already sharing his considerable intelligence, internal resources and ability to navigate the system with other newcomers - by teaching English, finding an apartments staying a shelter, and offering career advice, to list just a few of his recent contributions.
He's already made the journey to a new country before, having moved over 5 years ago from Syria, where he worked as a mobile network maintenance engineer, to Istanbul, Turkey. Through that first relocation, and now in Canada, he's watched his friends go through their own individual struggles to put their roots down in an unfamiliar land.
He's experienced his own challenges too - some of which continue to today. (Understandably, since he's been in the country for less than six weeks,: he's just getting started!)
Here's his view on the topic, in more or less his own words.
Timing is everything
Some people, when they come, are not ready to be helped. They are dealing with a language barrier, with a new culture, or new freedoms and challenges. They might be dealing with a problem you don’t know about - something big or small that is preoccupying them.
(Side note: I remember Ibrahim's own obsession with finding a power adapter the first week he arrived: he could not enjoy his dinner, or sightseeing, or anything until he found one!)
Think of buying a winter jacket for a friend. If you give it to them when it's still warm out, they won't know how to use it, even if you tell them. They are more likely to use it as a rag or a pillow. You need to wait until they're ready.
If you try to help too early, or with something that is not a big priority in that moment, it will be a wasted opportunity.
It's also important to ask the newcomers about their requirements first. Start with a conversation that helps them understand the need for the advice you're about to offer before offering it. That helps give them a sense of agency in the settlement process, and makes your guidance seem more of a support than an intrusion.
Ibrahim talked about timing as the secret key to providing the right help at the right time. The other key he talked about was sensitivity. "Never judge a man unless you walk a mile in his shoes" as the old saying goes. You might rephrase that as "never try to give advice to someone unless you spend an hour in his head." Or her head. Or their heads.
Doing so is not always easy when there's a language and cultural divide to bridge. Add to that the fact that the family may feel obligated to shield their Canadian hosts from the truth of what they're really going through, for reasons of pride, or fear of seeming ungrateful, or of being misunderstood.
And remember that a typical to deal with trauma - when trauma is involved - is to try to put it in a mental cage and throw away the key.
While there's not enough room here to talk about all the ways to bridge the divide, know that with time, the truths will emerge, and trust and understanding will grow.
In the meantime, be patient, and gentle with your help, knowing there is a time and a way to offer guidance, and if you get it right, you can make a huge and positive difference in someone's life.
Cultural differences. Culture shock. Post-traumatic stress. Family dynamics. There are a lot of stones to trip over on the road to the dream of the happily-settled newcomer.
But if you know where the hazards lie, and how to navigate around them (or through them), you will be amply rewarded for your efforts.