IN THE NEWS - 'A life changer': Volunteer describes helping new immigrants in Regina
By Adriana Christianson January 16, 2016 - 1:44pm Updated: January 18, 2016 - 7:59am
Imagine running from a war in your home country, spending years in a refugee camp, then stepping off a plane to build a life in a new country where you don’t know anyone. That is the moment when volunteers with Regina Open Door Society (RODS) offer a friendly face and some help to hundreds of refugees from all over the world, including new arrivals from Syria.
Barb Ryan started volunteering with RODS five years ago. She was first matched as a mentor for a family from Somalia who had spent 18 years in a refugee camp in Kenya. She welcomed them at the airport on the day they arrived in their new home.
“I was assigned to the mom and two kids, two daughters and I sort of fell in love with the whole family and ended up, I think there was 13 of them by the time I was done,” she said. “I kind of mentored them and helped them along at first and we’ve become fast friends.”
She attended the ceremony when they received their Canadian citizenship last winter.
Ryan has helped mentor many other families since then. While most refugees she has met are from countries in Africa, she was also matched with a Syrian family who arrived in Regina in June.
She said getting to know all of these families personally has changed her life and her perspective.
“I just have such respect for them, like I just can’t believe it – the things that they’ve gone through and the stories that they tell me are unbelievable,” she said. “We think we have problems here – it’s nothing compared to what they’ve been through.”
Ryan said the spirit and resilience of the people she meets inspires her.
“People have told me that 24 hours in a refugee camp is a lifetime. It’s so bad there, like everything bad in humanity is in a refugee camp because people are desperate and there’s no real laws there, nothing is enforced. It’s a terrible place to be, there’s no food and they come here and they just think it’s great.”
Ryan said she is often struck by how little they have when they arrive. She met one family who had only a grocery bag to carry all their possessions. She often tries to help with finding second-hand furniture.
“From my experience with all the refugees, they’ve just wanted to get out of there so badly for so long, they’re just so happy to be here, so grateful, so kind and so loving,” Ryan said.
While some refugees she meets have very little education, she knows many Syrian refugees coming here are professionals. Some were doctors or lawyers just a few years ago, but their lives were interrupted by war.
Even after they've arrived here, the challenges are not over for refugees in Regina. Ryan points out that they get one year of social assistance from the government to give them time to learn the language and find a job.
“I would say the language barrier is the biggest thing,” she said, noting that they can’t find a job without it. “I was even trying to get a lady a job cleaning in a hotel the other day, and they said she had to have English because if there’s ever an emergency, they have to be able to handle it.”
Despite the efforts of organizations like RODS, English classes often have waiting lists in the city. Ryan says she is considering taking an online course so she can volunteer to teach English as an additional language (EAL) classes.
Ryan said she was very happy when Canada committed to bring in 25,000 refugees from Syria by the end of February. She’s also proud of the response from Canadians to welcome them here.
She encourages anyone who is interested in becoming a volunteer to sign up.
“Even just an hour a week can really make a big difference in someone’s life, and yours too,” she said.
In December, RODS had more than 200 new volunteers sign up to help refugees, but the organization is still looking for more people to help with the influx of 328 new Syrian refugees in addition to the annual average of 215 from other countries. You can find more information and an application for volunteering at the RODS website. All you need are three references outside your family and a criminal record check.
The Regina Public Library is also looking for more volunteers to help tutor newcomers in English.
For Ryan, the people she has met have been the most rewarding part of her time as a volunteer. She said they are all like one big extended family. Some of her new ‘sons’ and ‘daughters’ text her every day, and she often jokes that she has 52 grandchildren.
“I always say I get way more from them than they ever get from me, but it’s just been a life changer for me."