For many immigrants, language presents the biggest barrier to adjusting to their new country. For Emilio Barbero, who arrived in London in 2007, it was specifically language used for measurement. As an interior designer back in Mexico, Emilio was accustomed to using the metric system. Suddenly having to switch to using “feet” and “inches” – the way most construction in Canada is measured – was tough to wrap his head around.
“My English skills were pretty good, but that small adjustment put a lot of insecurities in me. I’d go to design something and I wasn’t sure of myself,” says Emilio. “When people look at me like they aren’t sure what I’m saying, I still get uncomfortable. Imagine people who have very basic language skills and they’re trying to explain something that they know very well and they can’t communicate. It’s very frustrating.”
Shortly after arriving in London to be with his then-fiancé, now wife , Emilio started volunteering. He became a mentor to other newcomers with backgrounds in design, architecture and engineering.
“I thought it was a good opportunity to help other people,” he says. “I didn’t have that when I arrived and it would have helped. I can put myself in the shoes of people who are new to the country not knowing the culture and language, people who are struggling. I want to help.”
As a volunteer in a mentorship program organized through a partnership with WIL Employment, the Access Centre and Cross Cultural Learner Centre, Emilio has since helped newcomers from all over the world, including China, Colombia, Korea and Iran. He has also organized food bank drives. That is something I cared about. That there is always food available for people. The food bank is impactful for local people.
He has continued to volunteer, even while going back to school for new certifications, working as a teacher at Fanshawe College, and starting his own graphic design and branding company called OILIM.
Now, Emilio encourages other newcomers to volunteer as soon as possible. That is the first thing I tell newcomers. Get a volunteer job. You will feel active and a sense of purpose, and at the same time it helps you pick up social skills here and gives you exposure.
“I emphasize all the time. You have the time now, you have options,” he says. “Get involved, get out there.”
Eman Arnout has come a long way since she arrived in London in 2014. She works a fulfilling job, volunteers with several agencies and her smile comes easy. Still, tears fill her eyes when she recalls the isolation of her first months here as a mother of three who had sacrificed her career for the opportunities Canada could give her family. In those days, while her husband worked and her older boys were in school, Eman and her young daughter would often pass time visiting children’s play areas together. One day, her little girl sat on the ground at a fast food restaurant and started to sob.
“My daughter was isolated at that time, and I was too. I had no friends. I felt all alone. I sat on the ground and started to cry as well,” recalls Eman, who has a PhD in dentistry and has worked as a university professor and researcher in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, but did not have Canadian certification to work here when she arrived. “I had sacrificed everything and yet I was just sitting at home, doing everything by myself with no monthly income. I went through a deep, hard depression.”
A year later, Eman met a woman who told her about services for newcomers and also told her something very valuable: “She said the key here is to volunteer,” says Eman.
Since then, Eman has volunteered with many London organizations including Cross Cultural Learner Centre, London Intercommunity Health Centre, the tax clinic and Dentist Outreach Program.
She has also worked as a school settlement worker and is now employed as a research assistant at London Health Science Centre, working with the Muslim Neighbourhood Resource Centre.
Now a permanent resident and eligible for assistance that would help her access Canadian education Eman is deciding whether to return to the academic career she once had or continue with the work she has come to love doing in London.
But one thing she won’t give up is volunteering with organizations that help people, she says.
“I want to help people become involved and avoid isolation,” she says. “I encourage all newcomers to join the stream of community activity.”