Faculty and staff help refugees navigate new country

UNB community members are offering their time and social connections to help newcomers settle in Fredericton.

Don Wright, an associate professor in the political science department, has volunteered as a First Fredericton Friend. Dr. Wright spends almost every day helping a family of Syrian refugees navigate the difficulties of a new culture.

First Fredericton Friends work as community connections for government-assisted refugees.

Dr. Wright and his daughter, Harriet, have spent the past two months helping their new friends navigate Canada in every way imaginable, from driving them to the grocery story to teaching them the alphabet.

“They have 1,001 questions about how life works in Canada. Everything is different, the language, the culture, the education system.” Dr. Wright said.

Sharon Weaver, a former UNB refugee coordinator, is another First Fredericton Friend.  Dr. Weaver has been partnered with a Syrian family, the 40th to arrive in Fredericton, since Feb. 6.

Even in such a short period of time, Dr. Weaver already feels a grandmotherly connection with the family.

“We’re so close already. We’re always sharing jokes or they’re trying to feed me, which is symbolic in their culture.”

The family she’s partnered with has two adults and four children, although there are two older children who remain in Daraa, Syria, with their own families. Dr. Weaver said the resettlement process can be stressful, especially when leaving relatives behind.

Every volunteer with the First Fredericton Friend goes through rigorous background screening, Dr. Wright said, as they are working with a vulnerable population. Volunteers participate in workshops focusing on cross-cultural communications, sensitivity, Islam, and more.

Government-assisted refugees aren’t privately sponsored by groups and therefore often don’t have as many people to rely on for help. In the case of the First Fredericton Friends, volunteers are asked to draw on their own social networks.

“My family needs minor work done in their home, for example, putting up curtains,” Dr. Wright said. “If I know a carpenter who is willing to help that’s a big deal. It may only be a couple hours to the carpenter, but it means a lot to the family.”

The community at large has been reacting positively to the newcomers, Dr. Weaver said. People will approach the family in the street to welcome them to Canada and the City of Fredericton has released a transit schedule in Arabic for refugees.

“It makes them happy when people make an effort,” she said.

“It’s interesting how attached you get. Friends in the program often refer to each family as ‘theirs’ or ‘mine’, because you really do form a strong bond with them,” she said.

Dr. Wright believes that, while the refugees come from a different culture, they want the same thing everyone else does: peace, belonging, and a chance to send their children to school.

“We’re all people, no matter our backgrounds,” he said.

UNB community members can contribute to another campaign that will attempt to purchase beds for refugees. The campaign is collecting all sorts of items, from couches to dishes, for newcomers.

For more information on any fundraising campaigns, the various ways the UNB community is pitching in, or how to help, contact Cindy Brown.