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This article was published 26/3/2015 (824 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
A program that connects newcomers with established Canadians is looking for 20 families who want to make new friends this summer.
For seven years, the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba (IRCOM) has run the summertime family-to-family program to help refugee families such as Gibril Bangura's get to know their new home.
"Coming from Africa, our culture and traditions are different from here in Canada," said Bangura, who arrived in Winnipeg in February 2014 with his wife, Ann Marie, their three children and what he described as an "inferiority complex."
"I was a little bit not so sure I was going to survive in the West," said the refugee and artist from Sierra Leone. "At first I was a little hesitant and not sure I'm saying the right thing. I was ashamed and thinking 'How are they going to take us?' I was afraid of making mistakes," he said.
'I was a little bit not so sure I was going to survive in the West. At first I was a little hesitant and not sure I'm saying the right thing. I was ashamed and thinking 'How are they going to take us?' I was afraid of making mistakes' -- Gibril Bangura, a refugee and artist from Sierra Leone
"I have encountered so many cases of newcomers who are so shy," said Bangura.
"When people arrive in Canada, all the cultural and language barriers can be really hard to overcome," said Vanessa Kornelsen, IRCOM's volunteer and community services program manager. "It's hard to integrate into the social culture in Canada, and that can lead to a lot of isolation," she said.
"They meet people within the same cultural group, which doesn't help them learn Canadian customs or habits. It's a huge benefit to actually have the opportunity to meet a family who's firmly integrated into Canadian culture, who 'talk Canadian,' and know where the fun activities are and how things work."
Valuable life lessons
Living in an IRCOM apartment, Bangura heard about the family-to-family program and signed up. His family was paired with Kristen Pachet and Joel Savard's family.
"They're fantastic," said Bangura. "Their kids and my kids blend so easily," he said. His wife and Pachet have become "good buddies." Savard, a firefighter, looked a little intimidating but is very kind, said Bangura. "He is a hard man, but very soft-hearted."
Their first outing together was last summer's fringe theatre festival.
"After the brutal winter of last year, that was a relief," said Bangura. "That fringe festival led me to love Winnipeg like nothing else. We went to a place where a lady actually gave me a snake to hold. Coming from Africa, I don't like snakes. But it was the most beautiful creature I've ever seen -- I never thought I would say that, or have a snake in my hand and not be afraid."
Now, after a year of networking and getting to know Winnipeg with his family's new friends, Bangura is thriving as an artist and giving lectures at galleries.
"They were able to make me have confidence in myself. They were able to help me to talk freely to people, to interact very well with the public."
They've remained friends after the program, with Bangura's family invited to Pachet and Savard's home for Thanksgiving dinner.
"We just found that we'd gotten to know them beyond what we expected," said Pachet, who works for the University of Manitoba as a fundraiser.
Getting to know the Banguras has been rewarding in many ways, she said. "We found as a family when we're not with them we're using their experience as a starting point for a conversation with our kids on any number of different topics," such as "How do you buy a house when you come to a new country?"
Some valuable life lessons emerged from meeting people who arrived in Canada without material wealth. "We talked about how it would feel to go to a new school and how important it is to have friends."
When the families get together, they see how much they have in common even though they're from different parts of the world, said Pachet.
"We learned how similar everyone is. Kids are kids -- you get them in a room, and they connect."
IRCOM is looking for 20 volunteer families by May 5 in time for a May 12 orientation and training session, said Kornelson. For more information call 204-943-8765 ext. 23 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.