Newcomer Stories

Newcomer story: Maysoun Darweesh

MaysounShe came on screen for our Skype interview smiling and gracious, although looking a bit tired. Maysoun had a busy day at work and had just arrived from driving her two daughters to their after-school activities. Nevertheless, during our conversation, she was pleasant and quite positive about her life and daily activities. Talking to her, you wouldn’t catch any hint of bitterness or angst for all that she had gone through in her life.

The Darweesh family’s struggle began years before the current Syrian refugee crisis that we know of now. About 10 years ago, Maysoun and her husband, both human rights activists, began to be persecuted by the Syrian government. Her husband was a businessman (he owned a company) who suffered for his three years of human rights work. He was picked up by the authorities, imprisoned and tortured. He fled the country the first chance he got and went to China.

From Syria to Macau

Meanwhile, it became evident that Maysoun and her kids had to leave Syria for two things. First, she feared for their lives because of her work as a journalist and because of the daily threats by the Syrian secret police. The police rounded up their friends who were active with them in their human rights work, and even imprisoned her husband’s brother to pressure them to give up her husband. Second, her husband needed her help because he was stuck in Macau. He went there to extend his visa but while there, his luggage and all his belongings, were stolen. Desperate to leave the country, Maysoun sought all means to depart from Syria. When she finally got the approval to do so, the next step was going through the grueling travel from Damascus to Dubai, Dubai to Hongkong, then finally to Macau, via boat, plane, and ferry. She went through all these with her young children, a three-year old and an eight-month old, in tow.

Reunited with her husband, life in Macau became stable for the family. They were free from persecution, and they were cared for by a support group of multinational friends who helped them live fruitful lives there. However, after being assured that they would be granted residency in the country, they were told that they can live in Macau but their rights and freedoms would be limited. This signaled another struggle for the family which led them to seek better options. At one point, officials threatened deportation which moved them to take their case to court. Despite winning the case, they felt that there was no future for them in Macau. Fortunately, the Winnipeg-based Douglas Mennonite Church came to the rescue. The church’s sponsorship was approved and the Darweesh family were Manitoba-bound.

“Syrian refugees just need a chance. They are peaceful people. Just like you and me, they just want a place where they can be human again, and to raise their families in peace. They are victims of circumstances that they cannot control and this could happen to anybody. They deserve our understanding and support”

Life in Manitoba

They arrived in Winnipeg on December 13, 2012, a date that is unforgettable for Maysoun. Coming here, she felt that her family could finally live in freedom and in peace. It is a place where they can be “fully human” again.

Although they had been living in constant flux, life in Winnipeg was not really alien to Maysoun and her family. “We had a lot of western friends in Macau. We even celebrated occasions like Thanksgiving when we were there. I feel like our five years in Macau was training for our new life here in Canada,” she said. Quite fluent in English, she decided that the best way to settle was to immerse in the culture, mingle with Canadian neighbors, and become active in the community.

Another priority for Maysoun was her professional development. Although the experienced journalist and social worker was already proficient in English, she felt that she needed to improve her writing skills when she arrived in Manitoba. “I can be very hard on myself. I set high standards, especially when it comes to my abilities, I always want to be better,” she said. However, since she was doing shift work then, she did not have time for a regular program. She learned about English Online from one of her colleagues and decided to try it.

After learning with EO, she saw a marked improvement in her writing skills. “My e-facilitator, Iwona, told me to compare my earlier essays with my recent ones and I can see that I have vastly improved. I think that this online program is amazing! I am grateful for all the assistance and friendship that EO, especially, Iwona has extended. It helped me a lot when I was starting out,” she said.

One more thing that Maysoun is still adjusting to is keeping up with parenting. Since she wants her kids to have a normal Canadian childhood, she makes it a point that they become exposed to the usual activities that children their age are busy with. But sometimes, these activities can take their toll, especially with her work and other concerns. But the spunky mom takes it all in stride and sees everything in a positive light. ”We’re doing our best and we’re keeping up,” she says with a smile.

The need to feel human

Asked about the coming influx of Syrian refugees to Manitoba, Maysoun shares an expert’s perspective. Having had ample experience in settlement work in China and here in Manitoba, plus, being Syrian herself, she has a deep understanding of what these newcomers are dealing with. “Syrian refugees just need a chance. They are peaceful people. Just like you and me, they just want a place where they can be human again, and to raise their families in peace. They are victims of circumstances that they cannot control and this could happen to anybody. They deserve our understanding and support,” Maysoun said.

For her fellow Syrians, Maysoun shares these tips to ease their settlement:

“For these newcomers, I say that upon landing on Canadian soil, they should decide that this is now their country. This is their new home. They should establish a real sense of belonging to this land. I advise them to go out and immerse themselves, and meet people. They should not live in ethnic enclaves.

“It is very important that they should keep themselves busy. I would advise them to start learning English immediately when they get here. Knowledge of the language would lead them to job opportunities and help them adjust to life here faster. There are a lot of good support services in Manitoba (and I highly recommend English Online!). While they are still unemployed, they should do volunteer work. It will give them a good experience. They should continue being active in the community and take every opportunity to give back,” she said.

Newcomer Story: Iryna Bakunets

Ira at the stage after watching a ballet at the Centennial Concert Hall, Winnipeg.

Ira at the stage after watching a ballet at the Centennial Concert Hall, Winnipeg.

Love actually brought Ira to Manitoba. She first met her husband through his sister who was Ira’s friend. At that time, Ira’s husband-to-be was vacationing in the Ukraine for Christmas (he was a permanent resident and working in Winnipeg then) when love bloomed between them. “We carried on a long distance relationship for about a year and a half and then he came back home to propose,” she remembers fondly.

“When I came to Canada four years ago, I didn’t know any English at all,” she said. Ira was caught up with all the arrangements for the wedding and moving to Canada that she did not have the time to study English prior to leaving. When she arrived in Winnipeg in October 2011, she quickly learned that she would have to become accustomed to the way of life and quickly learn the language in order to fend for herself. “For instance, I saw that in Canada, everything is indirect. Everyone is so polite and diplomatic. Not to say that we are not polite but Ukrainians are quite direct. So I had to get used to how they say and do things. Communication was a big factor since I didn’t know any English at all. I was dependent on my husband for everything! I felt like a baby who could not do things for herself,” Ira laments. Prior to immigrating, Ira was a practicing corporate lawyer, so being helpless was something new to her.

Learning English

This pushed her to start learning the language as quickly as possible. As she was not a permanent resident yet, she enrolled in paid ESL classes. She first took classes at Heartland School, followed by another course at Red River College. She also enrolled at the University of Winnipeg. However, when she was sidelined by her pregnancy, Ira stopped her English courses. And then she was pregnant again the following year.

“After my kids were born, I wanted to go on with improving my English but I couldn’t continue taking classes in person. But because I already learned the basics from my previous classes, it made me more confident to start studying online which was the best solution for me,” Ira said. She heard about English Online from one of her friends and decided to try it. By this time, she was already a permanent resident.

“In April 2014 I started studying with English Online and afterwards I joined the LINC Home Study Canada program in July. At that time, my CLB was 6 in listening, reading and speaking; in writing I had CLB 5. Today, after one year of studying with LINC program, I feel that I advanced my English substantially. Not only did I reach CLB 8 in all four language skills, but I also got more confident and efficient in using English in my everyday life. In addition to this, I learned a lot about settlement, post-secondary education and working in Canada,” Ira said.

A world of possibilities

“These days, I can communicate with people, make calls, watch TV shows and theatre plays, write essays and different types of letters, and read magazines and books in English without fear of misunderstanding or being unable to express myself properly as it was at the beginning,” Ira says with a beaming smile.

She also recently passed her driving test and earned her permit in August. So from a blushing bride who was totally dependent on her husband, Ira is now a confident mom with a whole new world of opportunities opening up to her.

As her children are growing, she is planning on going back to building a career. She is looking into options for a career shift or to taking courses towards becoming a legal assistant. Hearing her talk about her plans for the future, you cannot be anything but excited for her.

Tips for other newcomers

Aside from learning English before coming to Canada, Ira shares the best advice she received as a newcomer:

“The best advice for me was to take advantage of the free courses and programs in Manitoba. There are many of these available and they are amazing! I have attended many parenting programs, like a breastfeeding support group, the healthy baby program, kids@play, and Rhyme and Story Time. I learned a lot from them. They even offer other support like free milk coupons until the baby is six months, and bus tickets. All you need to do is go and participate,” Ira says.

Asked what she loves most about living in Manitoba, Ira says that: “In Manitoba, you can enjoy life and not have to worry about what’s going to come tomorrow. You can be free to be yourself. You can choose to take care of your children or choose to practice your profession. You can even shift to a different career if you like. It is a good place, it is safe and secure. You can have a good life here with plenty of opportunities for growth.”

Newcomer Story: Oleksandr Hryntsiv

OleksandrOleksandr and his family came to Manitoba from Ukraine in March 2014. A close friend convinced him to immigrate to the province and offered to sponsor them. So, together with his wife and three year old son, the family settled in Portage la Prairie, a small city in the Central Plains region of Manitoba, 85 kilometres west of Winnipeg.

Adjustment period

When they arrived in Manitoba, Oleksandr found it difficult at first to adjust to the culture, transportation, and especially the language. “Aside from learning English, I had to learn how to communicate in an indirect way. I found that people here are always so polite and service is (pleasantly) different,” he said.

With the help of his friends, he began to seek out settlement support services, such as Manitoba Start, to help him get the proper information and the training that he needed to get a job. A bigger challenge, however, was the distance. He realized that some of the services that he needed were in Winnipeg, which required a long travel from Portage la Prairie. This wasn’t easy, especially during the winter.

In the meantime, he and his wife attended the Newcomer Welcome Centre in town for ESL training. But once Oleksandr started working, he found it hard to find free time for language training and to attend face to face classes.

“I could not believe that I could find somebody in my own field who would be willing to teach me and help me. Mercedes Hudson, my e-mentor, introduced me to the Certified Technicians and Technologists Association of Manitoba (CCTAM) and helped me get my educational credentials and experience assessed,” he said.

The online option

Oleksandr knew that he needed English language training so he tried to look for other options. It was through the good people at the Newcomer Welcome Centre that he got in contact with English Online (EO). The facilitators told him about the flexible English language training carried out through Skype and arranged for him to register.

At first, Oleksandr tried out the Group Study sessions. “Aside from English, I also Iearned how to write a resume, cover letter, official and non-official email, and prepare for an interview. EO also taught me how to make presentations using Powerpoint,” Oleksandr related. More importantly, learning about workplace communications widened his perspective at work. “Because of what I learned at EO, I could now relate to colleagues better and now understand what the management expects from me,” he said.

After the Group sessions, Oleksandr was paired up with an EAL e-tutor so he could have one-on-one language training. “Compared to learning with a group, I liked that you could ask questions whenever you need to when you study with an e-tutor. You don’t want to draw a lot of attention to yourself, so sometimes, even when you have a question, you don’t raise it in a group session. Also my e-mentor, Lillian Bernard, who has Ukrainian background, helped me translate words and especially phrases from English to Ukrainian to understand their proper meaning , and explained the way to communicate well,” he said. With the flexible arrangement he had with the e-tutor, Oleksandr was able to make time for studying English in the evenings and even during the weekends.

Another challenge was getting his education and experience recognized. Oleksandr holds a Master’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering and before he left Ukraine, was a self-employed mechanical engineer. So when EO offered the services of a Career E-mentor, he readily accepted. “I could not believe that I could find somebody in my own field who would be willing to teach me and help me. Mercedes Hudson, my e-mentor, introduced me to the Certified Technicians and Technologists Association of Manitoba (CCTAM) and helped me get my educational credentials and experience assessed,” he said. Oleksandr has also taken some courses at the University of Winnipeg and will take an English test in January, all in preparation for the membership process to the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists in Manitoba (APEGM).

Growing possibilities, growing family

“I am very thankful to English Online for all their help. I know that hard work will make newcomers succeed, but without the direction first, which EO gave me, I would not know how to start,” Oleksandr said. Now a believer in online learning, he urged his wife to register with EO too. “Learning with EO is the perfect arrangement for my wife who has to take care of our son and our new baby (a daughter). I suggested learning with an EAL e-tutor to her and so far she likes it and says that it is very effective for her,” he said.

Asked about tips he can share with other newcomers (aside from learning English before coming to Canada), Oleksandr generously said, “be prepared for winter”. For me, winter may not be a big deal because we experience this season at home, but I say this especially for those who are not used to it. The weather can be very difficult to adjust to,” he said.

“Also, always stay positive. Manitoba is a place of possibilities. So long as you are willing to work hard, you will succeed in Manitoba,” he ended with a smile.

Newcomer Story: Rhea Bugarin

Rhea's lab picRhea Bugarin is a lady with a plan. She is petite and somewhat soft-spoken, but while talking to her, you will realize that she is a person who has determination and a strong drive to succeed. Prior to coming to Manitoba, Rhea, a medical technologist, was already managing a hospital laboratory in the Philippines. But because she wanted more opportunities for growth and because her cousins did a good job of convincing her, she applied through the Provincial Nominee Program and landed in Manitoba in April 2013.

Horror stories

While Rhea was set on coming to the province because of the great things her cousins had told her about living here, she was also anxious because of the horror stories she had heard from other people. “Generally, they said it will be hard to get to the same level where you currently are at in your career. They said that life would be difficult in Manitoba. There will be discrimination and you could be stuck in survival jobs for the most part,” Rhea said. For someone who was very career-driven, this made her wary. However, it was this fear that pushed her to do more research and prepare thoroughly for her impending new venture.

Learning English and beyond

Foremost in her process of preparation was getting her language skills ready. “I thought that being very comfortable with English would help a newcomer succeed, so I made sure that it was on top of my ‘to-learn’ list before coming to Manitoba,” Rhea remembers.

She came across English Online in one of the documents CIC sent her. “I was amazed that Manitoba had a free initiative like that. Out of curiosity and backed with the goal of improving my language skills, I signed in.” But beyond developing her proficiency in English, what Rhea appreciates most were the courses that touched on settlement and career topics. “Aside from learning English, courses about workplace culture (and the culture of Canada in general), career advice, what to expect in Manitoba and how to make a Canadian-style resume, helped me a lot in my journey. Iwona, Natalia, Ianthe, Olesea and Blaine were among the dedicated people who facilitated these courses,“ Rhea enthuses.

“While the e-facilitators told us about the challenges we will be facing, they also assured us that Manitoba is a wonderful place and that the people are friendly. This helped me set realistic expectations before coming here. And when I came to Manitoba, I did see that people are friendly and that it is a wonderful and welcoming place”, Rhea continues. She was a learner with English Online for about a year before she came to Manitoba.

Rhea believes that research, planning and preparation made it easy for her to settle in her first few months in Manitoba. She didn’t find it too hard to adjust, even in the winter months, because she said that she knew what to expect and was set for it.

Land of opportunity

Today, Rhea is working at Manitoba eHealth, which provides electronic health systems to health care providers in the province. Her work has allowed her to shift into an IT-related field while still making use of her knowledge in the medical sciences. She has also obtained her medical technologist certification despite intending to shift careers when she got here. “I felt that I needed to achieve the certification as a fall-back in case my plan for a career shift is not successful,“ she said.

Aside from working full-time, she is also now an e-volunteer with English Online. Rhea believes that it is her opportunity to give back to the organization that was instrumental to her smooth integration process. She also wants to impart her experience and knowledge to help newcomers like her.

Words of wisdom

To other newcomers, Rhea has this to say:

“Prepare, do your research before coming to Manitoba. For those who are already here, never stop learning. Free resources are available, use them. Learn the language, it is the first step to understanding the work culture. Be open minded, think for example, discrimination does not really exist at all, that it could just be miscommunication . And most importantly, determine how you can overcome other expected hurdles, even better if you find ways to use them to your advantage, in a good way. ”

“Also, one needs to be flexible and adaptable. Although it is important to retain one’s culture, and Manitoba encourages multi-culturalism, you must also learn how to respect and manage to get along with people’s ways here. This is not just applicable career wise, but this will also make your life easier in general.”

Newcomer Story: E. H.

It was the beginning of February. We just arrived from the airport to our rental apartment. It was empty. It had no beds, no table, and no chairs. My son asked me, “Why don’t we have a TV?” and “where we are going to sleep?” A friend of ours brought us a couple of mattresses and a little food. We ate, and then we lay down and fell asleep.

The first month was full of action: lots of shopping, paperwork, and visiting different places, such as the bank and health clinic. We met lots of new people, and of course, we continued studying English all the time with English Online. At the end of the month, we already had a TV, beds, and a table. We had everything we needed in our apartment. Our son was going to school just like any “normal” Canadian kid.

The second month I started looking for a job. My profession is not in high demand in Winnipeg, but I tried very hard and used everything I learnt during my English Online classes. I sent my resume to all the companies that related to my job, even if they didn’t post any vacancies. I called related companies and asked them for an informational interview. After a few weeks I started working at my first job in Canada. A little while later, I decided that I didn’t want to pay for a lease anymore, so I started looking for a house for my family. We saw more than 20 houses before we found one that we really liked. We signed an offer and bought that house.

I want to thank English Online, all its teachers and volunteers for their incredible work. I would have never had this success without their help and support before and after my arrival in Canada. It’s not only English that they teach, it’s way more than that. It’s preparation for a new life!

Newcomer Story: Gemmarose Claveria

Gemmarose ClaveriaI am Gemmarose, I’ve been in Winnipeg for more than a year. As an immigrant, speaking and listening English is the first challenge to overcome. This is the reason why I enrolled in English online. I want to know the strategies in catching up to the fast-Canadian speech and to speak fluently in English. Learning English online is a great opportunity for me as a stay home mom. It gives silver lining in achieving my aims while being tied down with my sons.

At first, I found Learning English online to be very difficult. In this sort of study, I need to accomplish lessons differently from the traditional classroom learning. I need to set time aside to attend classes and study every detail. That’s my real experience in learning English online. I find lessons and exercises interesting and truly helpful. I love the way they value individuals. I am happy being one of the English Online community.