Originally from Saint Petersburg, Russia, Irina Chulkova and her husband immigrated to Canada in 2014 with their two daughters. They chose to settle in London because of the city’s reputation as a great place to raise children.
Before arriving, they worried about how their daughters would adjust in a new city with no family or friends, but from the very first day, they felt they had made the right decision, Irina says now. “We felt welcome here. Moving here was the best decision we ever made.”
Irina began looking for a place to volunteer, where she would gain Canadian experience, contribute to her new country and also socialize with long-time Londoners.
“Volunteering where local people volunteer is a way to share skills, culture and traditions,” she says. “If you go where you can meet local people, you can get an understanding of what they are thinking about, what they love.”
Her first volunteer job was with Glen Cairn Community Centre, and she is still involved with the organization. She has also volunteered with ReForest London and SARI Therapeutic riding and has been involved with Toastmasters.
Her advice to other newcomers is to meet their neighbours and volunteer in organizations that help their neighbours. She says it will lead to endless opportunities to learn new skills, experience new things and live life to the fullest.
She and her husband are also focused on their business, rebuilding batteries for customers ranging from hospitals to e-bike companies.
But her passion is pickle ball – a fast growing paddle sport that is described as a combination of badminton, tennis and ping pong. As a pickle ball instructor and coach, Irina works to get as many people as possible involved in sports.
Irina says her new goal is to get more newcomers to Canada interested in the sport. She runs tournaments that are free to enter, in hopes to attract people who don’t know or aren’t sure about pickleball.
“Being an active member of a community is the only way to integrate in a new country to get to know local people, their interests and lifestyles,” says Irina. “When you are an active member of your community, you become a family member, not a guest.”
Carlos Arturo Calderon Castillo arrived in London in December 2016, with wife Sirley, who was pregnant at the time, and their seven-year-old son. Originally from Colombia, Carlos and Sirley had been working to support farmers who were trying to grow new vegetable crops by helping them create financial plans and apply for government benefits. But, due to safety concerns, they fled the country for Canada, where Carlos has two aunts who live in London.
It was difficult to adjust to the Canadian climate and lifestyle for a family who was accustomed to living well in Colombia, and Carlos says he initially started volunteering as a way to help not only others, but himself.
“I needed to change my mind, and say this is my home – I need to put all my love and all my work into starting again,” he says. “When you start to help others, you create a big family. You start to see friends everywhere you go.”
He enrolled in English as a Second Language class, then began looking for ways to contribute in London.
Soon Carlos got involved with his church and London’s large Latin American community, and he learned that many immigrants were struggling to adapt to their new home.
The City of London has a large and growing Spanish-speaking population and many people Carlos spoke to were having difficulty understanding Canada’s tax and banking systems. It was stressful and confusing, and some people were in serious debt. Carlos wanted to help.
He and his friend Andres Ramirez launched Paz Financiera, which means Financial Peace, in London. Their goal was to explain Canadian rules for filing taxes and inform people of their rights and responsibilities when it comes to banking and credit card use in their new country.
“Banks work very different other countries. Many people were having difficulties,” he says. “For example, in some countries, it is not mandatory to file taxes if your income is under a certain amount, so some people didn’t understand that it was different here.”
The work he was doing felt good. People appreciated the help and some said the knowledge they gained through Carlos had been life-changing.
So, he and Andres set out to do more, by joining volunteers at the London tax clinic, where they could assist any Londoner in need of tax help.
He sees the volunteering as an opportunity to help not only others, but himself. “Every day we have the opportunity to learn new things. It is beautiful to do it in a place where we can feel safe and supported.”
Chances are you’ve been impacted in one way or another by the work of Joan Sam. Maybe she’s helped one of your loved ones in her job caring for people with Alzheimer’s and Dementia.
Maybe you follow her on Instagram.
Fifteen years after she arrived in London as a refugee from Sierra Leone, Joan’s Instagram photos of old homes and thrift shop finds have made her a local social-media celebrity with nearly 8,000 followers.
In her upbeat posts, under the handle @jocramel, she stresses the importance of storytelling.
Joan’s own story starts in Sierra Leone, where she lived before fleeing to a refugee camp in Gambia. In 2004, she immigrated to Canada with her mom, younger sister and her then-four-year-old son.
Within three months, Joan was working two full-time jobs – commuting to both by bus. With her son at daycare, her sister in high school and her mom at Wheable education centre, Joan cleaned rooms at a London hotel during the day and took a night shift stocking shelves at a department store.
“When you get here, you have one goal: To make life better for yourself,” she says now, recalling other jobs she held in the early years. Once she paid off her immigration bills, she began to focus on her larger goal of working in health care and enrolled in school.
Joan has worked in long-term care facilities and in home care and says she has now found her “calling” working with elderly patients experiencing Dementia and Alzheimer’s.
“I love spending time with the residents and listening to their stories,” says Joan, who also loves hearing stories from the International students she hosts during the school year.
Four years ago, Joan was inspired to get more engaged with the broader London community, and she started taking pictures of old homes in London and posting them on social media with the hashtag #Londonarchitecture. Her objective was to share photos of historic architecture and she was amazed at the response from Londoners she’d never met.
“The more you post, then people send you emails, people you don’t even know. They send you messages and tell you their stories,” she says.
She added posts about thrift shop finds, and community engagement, and her following continued to grow. Since launching the account, Joan has also started volunteering for a Wortley Village community newsletter called Old South News. She has invited other photographers and writers to join her and says she has made many connections with Londoners through the work that brings her so much joy. Joan has also been involved with a London oral storytelling project set to launch in spring of 2019.
“I’m fulfilled to be doing something for the community,” she says. “And some of the stories I hear are amazing.”