April Peel says the best part of her job as a volunteer leading the Access English Centre’s conversation circle is seeing how quickly her students improve.
The conversation circles are comprised of groups of up to 18 immigrants from a variety of countries and a volunteer teacher who guides the class, encouraging open and honest discussions. Aside from sharing stories about their lives, clients engage in activities like drawing and watching Mr. Bean episodes — pleasant activities that provoke natural discussion and opinion sharing. It’s a safe place to converse, connect, and develop the confidence needed to effectively communicate in the English language.
Peel, 29, whose been teaching English to adult immigrants at the pre-literacy to intermediate level for 4 years has a degree in Psychology with a major in Immigration History. She also has her TELSA certificate, a program that provides in-depth training into teaching English to adult speakers of other languages.
For 68 years, the Immigrant Centre has been delivering quality, innovative immigration and settlement services to allow immigrants to smoothly integrate into Canadian society. Last year, they helped almost 17,000 clients pursuing immigration and settlement assistance and average 4,000 calls a month — or a call every 2 minutes.
Some discuss heavy topics related to death, while others share quips about the snow and how it’s so unusual to them.
“In my country, there’s only rain,” Says Messele Hagos, a gentleman who came to Canada alone in 2005 and admits the white stuff is not only unfamiliar to him, but scary. He says although he bundles up with gloves and scarves, he’ll never get used to the chill of Manitoban winters.
“But I like Canada, it’s just hard to get a job — there aren’t enough of them!” he cries out to the group that nods in unison.
The circle is meant to strengthen students’ English skills, but Peel says it’s also a form of therapy for them – a safe place to connect, grow and relate with others in similar circumstances. At the rectangular table, where open and honest conversation flow, emotion is at the forefront and friendship is just as relevant as grammar and spelling.
Rueaiya, a woman whose been in Canada for 10 years says it’s been tough starting her life here, despite the help the Immigrant Centre has given her. She attends the conversation circles regularly and shares intimate stories about her family and her life.
During a segment in the class where students speak about themselves for one minute, she gives Peel and her classmates a glimpse into her past life. With tear-stained cheeks, she tells them that she was a teacher and had a good life back home. Throughout Rueaiya’s struggles back home, she’s managed to improve her English-literacy but she says she’ll never be able to let go of the pain her life has dealt her.
“My house was bombed. My husband died and my son died. I have no family anymore. The pain is making me sick. I have high blood pressure and I’m always dizzy,” she says as she pulls out a handful of pill bottles from her purse and lines them up on her desk. “I have no children, and I can hardly speak English. I have nothing except this,” says Rueaiya, gesturing to the array of medication in front of her with an aura of sorrow only a widowed refugee can know.
“Regardless of the situation, I always try to find the positive in it for them,” says Peel, who says she develops closeness to students as they confide in her and share personal stories —broken English and all.
“To see how far they come is also really rewarding to me. Not only does their (English competency) improve, but I can tell their confidence does, too.”
The Immigrant Centre also offers Settlement, Employment, and Nutrition services, computer training and citizenship classes for newcomers.
Between 2006 and 2011, 64,000 immigrants arrived in Manitoba. Since the province aims to attract 20,000 immigrants to settle here annually, it expects even more growth and demand for programs and services at the Immigrant Centre in 2016.
Article and photo by Tannis Miller