Since 1983, the Refugee and Immigrant Advisory Council (RIAC) has helped newcomers to Newfoundland and Labrador navigate the rocky terrain of starting a new life in the province.
RIAC began as an organization to simply help people settle in the province. When the refugee program changed in the 1990s, it functioned as a paralegal service.
In 2005, when people began coming with a whole range of topics they needed advice on, RIAC expanded its service to offer holistic help and advice to refugees and immigrants.
Through all the changes, RIAC has remained consistent in its mission to provide entirely free assistance to refugees and immigrants.
“We don’t know what we don’t know,” RIAC executive director José Rivera said, explaining that people will come about a specific thing, and when they learn RIAC can help on other fronts they return with more questions, often about how to get work, and what programs are available to them that might not have existed in the country they came from.
The most common question at RIAC is, “How do I bring my family?”
“When we come here as refugees ourselves, one of the things that lingers in our minds, in our spirits, in our souls, is the family that we left behind,” Rivera says about the feeling of survivor’s guilt that is pervasive among refugees and immigrants in Canada, who know their families are still suffering in another part of the world.
Taqwa Mahmood is a Palestinian refugee and business student who has been living in Newfoundland for six years, and benefitted from someone asking exactly this question.
Her aunt immigrated to Newfoundland 13 years ago and found Rivera. The two worked for over a year to find a way to bring Mahmood and her family over. It took five years for Mahmood and her family to make it to Newfoundland. When they arrived, her father began working with Rivera to bring her brother-in-law to the country, a process that took four years. Since, with the help of RIAC, they have brought over her aunt and uncle and their children. A total of three families, from one question asked more than a decade ago.
“Not only did he bring me here, and give me a chance to sell my art, we had a couple of exhibitions, but he hired me here,” says Mahmood, who is working at RIAC for the summer. Some of her artwork is currently displayed on the walls at RIAC.
“One unfortunate characteristic of Newfoundland is that we don’t have the critical mass. … We, as a community, are not big enough to provide that support to our country-fellows as opposed to other regions in Canada … where they have neighbourhoods, and businesses, and they can talk to each other and help each other. … Not having that critical mass means that the government has no reason to step up and put meaningful money there,” Rivera says about the increased struggle faced by new immigrants in Newfoundland compared to other parts of Canada.
“It’s the problem of the chicken and the egg — if there is no support in there for people to come, then they are coming to feel abandoned, and disenchanted, and they’re going to move on. … We are the lowest retention rate in Canada. Our retention is below 20 per cent, so 8 out 10 people move away because they don’t have the time frame,” Rivera said, adding that many people don’t have the patience to spend six or seven years learning the culture of Newfoundland and making connections.
“One of the things is a lack of information. I’m a refugee. When I came here we were provided with many information, but none of the information we needed and I don’t think there was any source for us to get this information,” Mahmood said, explaining that they were given information about Canada, taxes and other general knowledge, but they weren’t told about how to gain employment or education.
In other provinces, including P.E.I., there are at least two immigration service providers through the government in addition to two or more centres like RIAC to help answer questions. In Newfoundland, there is only one government immigration service provider, and RIAC.
RIAC serves approximately 1,000 people a year on an entirely volunteer basis.
“The services that are out there aren’t geared to navigate you,” Rivera said.
RIAC takes the time to sit with people and listen to their specific questions about immigration, housing, employment, education or anything else they need, and helps them fill out forms, make applications and understand how to start businesses rather than give them a website or 1-800 number they might struggle to understand.
“One thing that not many people think about is, ‘how to deal with people,’ coming from a different country, the culture, how they speak,” Mahmood says about one of the struggles she finds often gets missed in the information given to new immigrants.
“If you’re a refugee who came here with both your hands only, and what you are wearing, then money is an issue, credit is an issue. So, what we do is we set up their business as one of our business,” Rivera said about their social enterprise program, which helps refugees and immigrants to set up businesses, build credit history and ensure they are stable.
RIAC runs programs to engage with the wider community and encourage diversity awareness throughout the year, including its Summer Culture Festival on Aug. 4, an art show at Atlantic Place on Aug. 11 and a concert series throughout the year.
When asked what advice they would give to Newfoundlanders, on engaging with immigrants, Mahmood said, “A lot of things I just wish someone had told me when I came here. There’s a lot of things I thought I couldn’t do, and a lot of benefits I was not aware of and I lost many chances, just information.”
“Something that we kind of insist with people is be curious,” says Rivera, adding there is a lot everyone can learn from each other. “Don’t be afraid to offend us, let’s talk, let’s have a frank conversation.”