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Newcomer Mentorship Program launched in Oxford to connect new residents to information, friendship, and local culture

By Megan Stacey, The London Free Press

Syrian refugees Mohammad Al Amour and Shoroq Abo Arah with their children Aya and Rasheed, as they begin a new chapter of their lives in Ontario in December 2015. (File photo)

Syrian refugees Mohammad Al Amour and Shoroq Abo Arah with their children Aya and Rasheed, as they begin a new chapter of their lives in Ontario in December 2015. (File photo)

Everyone wants to make Canadian friends.

It's one of the top priorities settlement coordinator Karen Oldroyd hears from the newcomers she works with in Oxford County.

“It’s a conversation I have with almost every single person or family that I meet,” she said. “People tell me ‘I’d love to have a Canadian friend…someone I’d be able to call if I have a question.'”

That’s why Community Employment Services – where Oldroyd works – has launched a new program that seeks to link newcomers with residents who have been here for years.

It’s all about strengthening community connections and fostering a sense of belonging for those that have recently arrived in Oxford.

“Someone who’s a resident of the community can not only offer insight into everyday things that you take for granted, like where are the grocery stores and public transportation – how do I get to the library? – (but) also language skills,” said Kyra McNamara, project lead with Oxford’s Local Immigration Partnership.

“Their mentor can help with wording that might be confusing to them - maybe they’re on an online website trying to sign their kids up for an activity.”

It’s a bit like adopting the role of helpful neighbour or Big Sister.

“Oftentimes newcomers will come here and not have any connections beyond their employer,” McNamara said. “We want them not just to make a living, we want them to make a life.”

Isolation can be hard to overcome when you’re trying to acclimatize to a brand new province or country.

“I’ve had people that have lived here for two or three years that have only been around their block, because they don’t know where things are,” Oldroyd said. “Someone to just give them some advice and ideas…and help with adjusting to life in Canada, it’s great.”

At its core, the program is about building relationships.

“I feel like there’s a warmth to it. It really does speak to community belonging – there’s a friendship element,” said McNamara.

The team at CES has already had one inquiry and they’re looking for others interested in mentoring newcomers. The program requires a six-month commitment, about four hours per month.

The specifics are left up to the mentor and mentee, based on what a particular newcomer is hoping to do and learn.

That could mean taking a stroll through town or checking out a local festival or community fundraiser. Some matches may decide to cook a meal together or get together for a simple coffee.

It doesn't have to be taxing.

“It’s more doing things with the newcomer, instead of doing things for them,” said Oldroyd. “Getting them connected and integrated into the community and helping them settle, that’s a big piece."

But the benefits of the program flow both ways.

“Volunteers can get a lot out of it. There’s real satisfaction in helping someone in that way. As well, (it’s) very interesting learning about the other person’s culture,” McNamara said.

Oldroyd said she knows her clients will be excited to have the opportunity to be matched up with a resident. Some of her former clients, who came to Oxford years ago, are even looking forward to helping families like theirs navigate the journey.

“It’s so important for newcomers to be able to access opportunities and have those social connections, and receive that emotional support,” Oldroyd said of the program.

“I’m thrilled that it’s here and ready to go.”

mstacey@postmedia.com

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BECOME A MENTOR

Apply to participate in the program:

http://lip.welcometooxford.ca/portal.html