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.”