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Surrey program encourages immigrants to help other immigrants

August 24, 2016

Metro The peer ambassador program trains immigrants who have been in Canada for a long time to connect with new arrivals

 Zoreen Abu Aboud isn’t shy about striking up a conversation with a stranger. So becoming a volunteer peer ambassador who connects newcomers to Canada with literacy and health services was a natural fit.

“I like to volunteer, I like dealing with people,” said the Surrey resident who first came to Canada 15 years ago.

Abu Aboud is part of a new program organized by DIVERSEcity, an immigrant services organization in Surrey, that aims to connect immigrants who have been in Canada for some time with those who have just recently arrived. The peer ambassadors are trained to approach newcomers in a friendly, casual way, striking up a conversation in the newcomers’ mother tongue.

The hope is that this approach will be more effective in connecting new immigrants with services that could improve literacy and health outcomes, said Tahzeem Kassam, chief operating officer for DIVERSEcity.

“As human beings, it’s hard to accept that we need more education about certain things,” Kassam said. “Nobody like to go up and say ‘I know nothing about this.’ I think it’s important, from a power dynamics perspective, you have a peer, somebody who is like you who is able to share information with you at a level you might be less anxious to receive it.”

Abu Aboud remembers the challenges her family faced when they first arrived in Canada from Jordan with their two young children: a business they started failed, and her husband, an engineer, decided to return to school in order to improve his job prospects.

“Everything is new, and you have small kids,” she recalled.

Her husband is now a construction manager for the City of Surrey while she has become an active volunteer at her children’s schools. But she remembers the help her family got at the time and now wants to give back.

The project is part of the United Way’s Avenues of Change project, which concentrates on four communities — Guildford in Surrey, Coquitlam River in Tri-Cities, Strathcona in Vancouver and Richmond City Centre — that have particularly high rates of child vulnerability.

For instance, 43% of children in Guildford are considered vulnerable, compared to 35% across Surrey, Kassam said.

Volunteers in the peer ambassador program are trained for two streams: health and literacy. Abu Aboud is in the literacy stream, and she says the work is similar to how she already interacts with other parents as she volunteers at Surrey schools.

DIVERSEcity has graduated six volunteers so far, but would ideally like to have 20 more volunteers complete the next round of training. For more information about the program, contact peerambassadors@dcrs.ca.

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