The Rooms was buzzing with activity Sunday afternoon as people from upwards of 50 diverse cultural backgrounds came together to share their cultures with one another through the Sharing our Cultures event on the first day of Multiculturalism Week in the province.
The event was established 19 years ago by Lloydetta Quaicoe. It aims to engage high school students from diverse cultures in activities designed to develop healthy friendships, as well as leadership, literacy and sociocultural skills.
“The event is important because as the province becomes more and more culturally diverse, there needs to be some understanding of our cultures,” said Quaicoe. “So, I think as newcomers, we come here and we learn the local culture, so it would be really nice if the local citizens can also learn about our culture because I think, sometimes, discrimination and racism and stereotyping come as a result of lack of knowledge.
“You know, people say, ‘I don’t want a black person looking after me.’ Well, if you had a black person who was a friend, you wouldn’t mind them looking after you, you would welcome them into your home. So, I think this sort of thing is important because the public comes in, they interact with children from Namibia, from Cameroon, from Sudan, from Syria, and they find out, well they’re so much more like us than they are different,” said Quaicoe.
Sunday’s event started with an opening ceremony in The Rooms’ auditorium, during which students spoke about their cultures and had a parade of flags.
Minister of Advanced Education, Skills, and Labour Al Hawkins also spoke at the event.
“Today is the beginning of Multiculturalism Week, a time for us to take a moment to remind each other that everyone belongs in Newfoundland and Labrador,” he said. “This celebration showcases our respect for diverse cultures that make Newfoundland and Labrador a place that all of us can call home.”
After the opening ceremony, visitors were welcome to walk around the third floor and talk with students about the projects they contributed to the event to teach people about various aspects of their cultures.
There were also performances happening throughout the afternoon in the auditorium and in the atrium.
Fighting racism and bullying
Quaicoe said she hopes the event helps to eliminate racism and discrimination in the province.
“There is discrimination, and people have said racist remarks, and you know, the children are bullied based on their skin colour or their country of origin, so we want to change that,” she said.
“I think to be able to change that, I don’t think just telling people or reading it in a textbook will do it. We really need to have an opportunity for a one-to-one, have some intercultural dialogue, talk with someone, find out who they are, why they’re here, what’s happened in their lives, and develop that friendship.”
“I’ve always felt that the way to combat racism is really to put a positive spin on it on the premise that if we get to know each other and learn about each other, we’re more likely to accept and respect each other. Nobody discriminates against their own friend. I think that’s the goal and that’s what we’re hoping will happen as a result of these events.”
Quaicoe said she hopes people walk away from Sunday’s event realizing the diversity that exists in the province and having learned something about another culture.
“There’s also the camaraderie of being a part of a community — I think that’s a wonderful thing.”
Basma Alfaoury is a student participating in the event. She said she’s excited to meet new people, and for people to get to know more about her Syrian culture, too.
Gloria Mwadi is a student at Holy Heart of Mary High School.
“I think it’s important because expressing where I come from, I’m sharing my culture, sharing how I lived in the past for other people to know,” said Mwadi. “I hope people will walk away knowing different cultures and different traditions.”
Quaicoe said the event will continue to grow and change in the coming years. Right now, it takes place in St. John’s and in one other community outside St. John’s every year.
Oranizers do not have enough funding to plan more than those events, but the event model lends itself to being organized anywhere in the world. The hope is that they will be able to get enough funding to have the event in many communities across the province.
“We’ll still continue to have the event at The Rooms, but I think it will be great because a lot of newcomers are moving into places like Happy Valley Goose-Bay, Gander, Corner Brook, and so on, and it would be really nice for them to be able to host their own Sharing our Cultures event.”