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Douglas Todd: Immigrant workshops in Vancouver face up to difficulties of integration

July 20, 2016

Vancouver Sun | When Mohamed Ehab arrived in Vancouver from Egypt six years ago, he knew nothing about Pride parades or the Grouse Grind.

The 40-year-old pharmacist, who now enjoys hiking up North Vancouver’s Grouse Grind trail, wishes other immigrants and refugees would get up to speed earlier on such cultural matters — so that they can avoid self-isolation and integrate more fully into Canada’s liberal-democratic culture.

Aware that many immigrants and refugees arrive in Canada from patriarchal societies in the Middle East and Asia, outgoing Ehab and his philanthropic supporters are gearing up to have him lead workshops that would ease newcomers’ often-difficult transitions.

“When I arrived in Canada I wanted to become part of the Canadian community, not just the immigrant Arab or Egyptian communities,” says Ehab, who has for the past few years used Facebook to organize informal foreign-film events in Vancouver.

While Ehab intends his workshops to be enjoyable and practical guides to Metro Vancouver and Canada, they will also take on some of the serious issues that he believes sometimes push newcomers into confining themselves to ethno-cultural “pockets.”

Ehab’s course will explain Canadian customs regarding such things as homosexual couples, trusting police officers, accepting common-law relationships, paying a fair share of taxes, wearing revealing clothes and sexist behavior.

“New immigrants and refugees don’t have to agree with everything they will find here. But they should know that those things are part of what it means to be in Canada,” Ehab said.

The Vancouver workshops, which will run for four hours a day for a week, loosely echo programs in European countries such as Norway and the Netherlands.

That’s where some asylum seekers are learning in classes to discuss such things as Western women, mini-skirts, sexual boundaries and domestic violence, with the refugees often reporting they take the programs so they will find it easier to fit in.

Homosexual relationships in the West, Ehab says, are especially difficult for many immigrants and refugees to comprehend.

Mohamed Ehab (centre) is a pharmacist originally from Egypt, now residing in Vancouver. He helps immigrants and newcomers to Canada  helping them try to understand the Canadian way of life. Ehab is pictured on the Grouse Grind in North Vancouver, BC Wednesday, July 20, 2016. Ehad is pictured with Farooq Al-Sajee (left) and Farzin Jamatlou.
Mohamed Ehab (centre) is a pharmacist originally from Egypt, now residing in Vancouver. He helps immigrants and newcomers to Canada helping them try to understand the Canadian way of life. Ehab is pictured on the Grouse Grind in North Vancouver, BC Wednesday, July 20, 2016. Ehad is pictured with Farooq Al-Sajee (left) and Farzin Jamatlou.JASON PAYNE / PNG

“In the Middle East, if somebody comes out as gay, they will be thrown in jail. It’s a crime there,” he says.

Ehab knows of an isolated couple from the Middle East, who have lived in an ethnic enclave in Ontario for almost five years, who recently asked, “What’s the LGBT community?”

Similarly, many immigrants from the Middle East and elsewhere could gain from being informed about heterosexual sex outside marriage, divorce and women and men sharing public spaces, including exercise classes.

“We would inform newcomers about how dating works here, for instance. That it’s not taboo,” said Ehab.

Many immigrants, he noted, come from nations where it’s almost unheard of to engage in male-female relationships beyond one’s own ethno-cultural or religious group.

Asked about recent refugees from Syria who are refusing to be seen by Canadian doctors of a different sex, or to work with language interpreters of a different sex, Ehab said it’s better for newcomers to “not be surprised” about Canadian expectations about such things.

The workshops, which will operate out of immigrant-support organizations, are being paid for by people who have long worked with institutions devoted to multicultural understanding, such as the Laurier Institute, SUCCESS and outreach arms of the RCMP.

“The sponsors of these workshops are immigrants who feel there is a lack of education about the understanding of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and about the need for people to reach out beyond their communities,” says one sponsor, Farid Rohani, who recently chaired the Laurier Institute and the Institute of Canadian Citizenship.

“Many Canadians feel immigrants seem to live in their own castles. The new arrivals on the other hand are afraid of making contact; they fear making a mistake or offending someone,” said Rohani, whose family arrived from Iran.

Rohani said the trouble with the way many new immigrants meet each other in Canada — in English-as-second-language classes — is that they often tend to form into “cliques of uninformed people. They often don’t learn how to integrate.”

Clarence Cheng, former chief executive of the SUCCESS Foundation, which supports immigrants, said the workshops will include guest speakers such as police officers, judges and tax department officials.

The speakers’ tasks, among other things, is to educate immigrants that they have come to a new land where it’s worthwhile to generally trust agents of the government and to cooperate with them.

Ehab readily acknowledged it’s common, for instance, for people in Middle Eastern countries to be deeply suspicious of the police, and fear police favouritism and brutality. “In many Middle Eastern regions, the police are a country unto themselves.”

Despite the gravity of some of the issues that will be explored, Ehab said a goal of the workshops will be on finding ways to overcome the alienation and sense of “coldness” immigrants often feel in new countries and cities.

“We want to offer practical advice on finding jobs and new ways to make friends. And we want to make the workshops a fun and happy experience. I’m very excited.”

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