Lena Tawana left a life of fear behind in Syria, where her neighbours’ homes were lit on fire and her church bombed.
“We are Christian. Every Christian is killed, killed, killed. No safety,” said the mother of two. “They say, ‘We are coming to kill you.’ We close the door. The men scared; the women never leave the house. Maybe steal the children, maybe steal the woman. Now, nobody is in my village.”
As war continues raging in Syria and refugees flee in a mass exodus to find new homes, Tawana said she is happy to be living in Bradford West Gwillimbury.
“Now we can sleep. Now (my family is) safe, thanks God,” she said. “(It) feels like a bad dream.”
“As a county, we are leading a number of creative and impactful programs that further open our region to immigration, skilled labour and ultimately support our economic, social and community growth.” — Simcoe County Warden Gerry Marshall
Tawana said she loves living in a quiet, small town with her husband, Jony, and young children, George and Gabriella. Key to her success was finding a community with services for newcomers.
Bradford is one of five municipalities in Simcoe County chosen to be part of a provincially-funded pilot project to make local libraries welcoming hubs for new immigrants. The other locations for Library Link are Barrie, Innisfil, Midland and Wasaga Beach.
The idea is to make libraries a one-stop shop for helping immigrants feel at home, access materials in different languages and find information on the community and referral services.
“As a county, we are leading a number of creative and impactful programs that further open our region to immigration, skilled labour and ultimately support our economic, social and community growth,” said county Warden Gerry Marshall in a statement.
Since Library Link began in Midland, no immigrants have come in looking for help, but a family of Syrian refugees recently moved to neighbouring Penetanguishene and a family is expected in Midland.
Midland Public Library circulation assistant Angie Blackwood, who was trained to implement Library Link, said she would complete a needs assessment for all immigrants looking for assistance.
If they need a job, want to better their education or join a conversation circle, library staff can direct them, she said.
Tracy Munusami, manager of the Barrie Public Library’s adult and community services, said staff was taught how to communicate better cross-culturally and be more helpful to newcomers.
She said the library has literature in many different languages, including Chinese, Dutch, German, Hindi, Tagalog and Punjabi as well as a large Basic English section.
The library also hosts a variety of programs for new immigrants, such as a weekly English conversation circle. The winter session begins at the city’s two branches Jan. 30 at 10:30 a.m., she said.
Georgina’s Irina Efimova emigrated from Russia nine years ago. Now, she is the mobile unit facilitator of the Welcome Centre Immigrant Services servicing Collingwood, Wasaga Beach, Orillia, Alliston and upper York Region.
She said increasing the role of libraries to help immigrants is a “great thing” because it should help make their transitions to Canada smoother.
“They’re looking everywhere (for help) when they arrive in Canada. We didn’t have (a welcome hub); we had to do all the searching ourselves,” she said.
Marsida Dine, who emigrated from Albania to Bradford three months ago with her husband, Adriatik, and children, Amanda and Andi, said she often goes to the library.
Dine said it is a great source of community information, where she can learn about local events, many of which her family attends.
“You have to start somewhere. We can get information from here. For the newcomer, how much are they going to know about the country?” she said.
Libraries are important for the success of new immigrants and, if anything, she said they should host more events and activities.
“It would be nice if they add a little bit more,” she said. “Homework buddies, reading buddies — that would be helpful for us and the kids.”
“It’s not easy to live here in Canada,” added Lina Isho, who immigrated to Canada from Iraq in 2012 with her husband, Mohand, and kids, Maryan and Yousif.
Isho met Dine and Tawana at the Bradford Learning Centre, where they take an English as a Second Language (ESL) class.
“The library helps a lot,” Isho said, adding her family has taken advantage of many free activities in town, such as crafts programs and movie nights, which help them socialize in the community.
“It’s a small thing, but it’s nice.”
Thornton’s Yvonne Konrad, who has been working with immigrants for 30 years, is Isho, Dine and Tawana’s ESL teacher. She also runs a book club in Alliston for Syrian refugees and a regular lunch for immigrant women.
The book club includes people from all over the world, such as Germany, Serbia, Korea and Mexico, along with some Canadians new to Alliston, she said.
Konrad is thrilled Simcoe County has created Library Link because she has been trying to expand services for immigrants in South Simcoe, especially in rural communities, for years.
“You don’t have anything that brings people together. If you don’t belong to a church, what else is there?” she said, adding some small municipalities do not have meeting places such as community or recreation centres.
“I would love to see rural libraries in smaller areas doing more. A lot of these things can be very easily initiated. There’s a lot of opportunity.”
In 2014, Ontario was home to about 96,000 permanent-resident immigrants – more than any other province, according to Citizenship and Immigration Canada.
That year, 351 of them resided in Barrie. In comparison, Toronto had 75,821.
Fifty-two per cent of immigrants who have lived in Canada less than five years participate in adult education programs, which is the same as people born here but higher than established immigrants (41 per cent), according to Statistics Canada.
As well, youth who immigrate to Canada before age 15 have higher rates of high school and university completion (40 per cent) compared to third- or higher-generation immigrants (26 per cent).
Immigrants are “very highly motivated to learn. A lot of them are internationally educated people. They want their children to be educated,” Konrad said. “Immigrants need a place. Libraries are critical for helping immigrants settle.”
It is particularly important for immigrant women who do not work to integrate into the community so they do not become isolated, she said.
“A lot of mothers will walk their children to the bus stop and the other mothers will say, ‘Hi, hello’ (and not much more). Libraries provide a place for people to talk and connect,” she said.
Konrad said she sees the involvement of libraries as part of a larger picture to encourage Canadians’ “cultural sensitivity.”