Manitoba’s net permanent international migration has increased by 37% since 2007, with Winnipeg receiving four out of five newcomers to the province – amounting to some 10,000 new Winnipeggers annually. For new arrivals, finding housing, navigating a new city and foreign language, and searching for employment are difficult, but urgent undertakings.
Talatu Shokpeka is the community resource program manager at the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba (IRCOM), a non-profit organization that provides transitional housing and settlement services to newest of newcomers. This is her story.
Talatu Shokpeka, a registered social worker, supervises 80 staff and newcomer programming across two transitional housing sites on the western edge of Winnipeg’s Exchange District.
I came here from Nigeria with my family in 2009. We moved here because this has been a dream for us to come here as a family – my husband had a friend that has been in Canada for a long time. When we arrived we only knew one person that was living in Winnipeg – we lost contact with the friend. We arrived in April, and it was very cold. People here would say it wasn’t cold, but it was really cold for us.
Right away, we went to all the immigrant-serving organizations that we were supposed to go to. One of the first places we went to was called Success Skills Centre, which worked with skilled immigrants that arrive from other places. We were taught how to write resumes, how to do interview practice, how to search for jobs as well. While we were doing that I got a job at the University of Winnipeg in the cafeteria as a cashier. I had never been a cashier before!
One of the worst memories for me when first coming here was looking for a job. At home in Nigeria, my husband and I were both skilled federal workers. I studied French and earned a Master’s degree in public administration, and previously worked with the National Youth Service, which is a one-year volunteer service to the country for university and college graduates. When I came here I wanted do something similar – I wanted the opportunity to work directly with people.
Our first winter was also really hard, we didn’t do anything. Because we didn’t have other family here, we would just go to work and go home and stay home. I also fell into the snow once, slipping on the ice – that was an experience….In the beginning, looking for jobs, it was really challenging – I sent out over 200 resumes. We were using up all our savings, and it made my husband and I very anxious and scared about how we were going to take care of our four children that we brought here. But then opportunities opened up, I got a job and my husband got a job.
At the University of Winnipeg, I worked there for 3 months while looking for a job in my field and eventually got a job as an administrative assistant at the very same Success Skills Centre. While there, I was very interested in what they were doing with immigrants and employment counselling. So I enrolled at the University of Manitoba for an applied counselling program, and eventually became an employment counsellor at Success Skills Centre. After spending 2 years at Success Skills Centre, I saw this position, community program manager at IRCOM, and I decided to apply, and got it.
IRCOM, to give you a bit of background, is an apartment complex – two, actually. The first one is on Ellen Street and the second one is here, on Isabel Street. The Ellen Street building started as an apartment complex for newcomers that offered on-site services, which began very small.
At first there was only two or three staff. They were just helping people, reading and responding to mail – for example, telling them that they have an appointment scheduled at the clinic on this day, and did they want to keep it or cancel, or reminding them about an English class they had enrolled in. The staff would also help people learn how to find directions to places throughout the city, show them how to call a taxi – all the daily things that can be very difficult when you are a new immigrant. So this is how IRCOM began.
IRCOM opened its second location, a 48-unit apartment complex on Isabel Street, in 2016. Residents stay for three years before being helped to find more permanent housing.
But you know, when you are serving a community, the needs start to grow and evolve. So, then the staff started an after-school program for the children. After the after-school program, other programs were added such as English classes right in the building instead of referring residents to somewhere else. We have five classes now. As you know the largest obstacle to getting jobs is language. For those that come with good language skills, they are able to get jobs. After that, so many other programs just came on board: money management classes, a volunteer program, and more.
And then we got this second site on Isabel Street that opened in 2016. It has 48 apartment units, and some of those units are big enough that we can separate them into multi-dweller units, where a four bedroom unit is split into three bedrooms for a family and a bachelor for someone else. But because we serve larger families we just let them have the entire space. Among these, 8-10 more are accessible units for people in wheelchairs or with other mobility issues.
When residents come to IRCOM they stay for three years. It’s transitional housing. After three years residents move on to more permanent housing. When they stay with us it’s about settlement and integration, so we feel three years is a good time to get your bearings
Usually, when someone moves in we visit them right away, do a needs assessment with them, and then also refer them to services in the community that they need. We also hold workshops and information sessions where we provide childcare and interpretation. We’ve found that people often don’t attend those types of important sessions because they don’t have an extended network here to help look after their child while they are doing something. And they are low-income, so they can’t afford babysitters or paid childcare.
All those barriers that we know newcomers have when they are coming – especially refugees and single moms, we have a lot of single moms in the building – we try to provide services that will address those barriers. We also do home visits for families, and run a life-skills program that works directly with newcomers in their homes.
When staff come into the office, our primary focus is not on responding to all our emails right away or trying to connect and coordinate stuff with other outside organizations, making phone calls, all that. Our focus is on face-to-face interaction and support of our residents. For our staff, the mornings are usually our quiet times – and we always say that’s the hardest part of our day! We want people to come in so that we can ask them about how their families are doing, talk about their progress, you know. For some of our residents that are more isolated, we also like to have them just come down and chat with us, because we are kind of like their family.
Providing childcare and after-school programs have been key to freeing up IRCOM’s single mother residents to attend workshops and language classes of their own. Photo: IRCOM website
We try to create diversity in our buildings, because we want them to be representative of Canada. We actively choose to accept tenant applications from people of different nationalities – it is not ideal for any specific community to be dominant in the building. We want that interaction where our residents get to know people from other cultures, live together, and find different ways to integrate together as part of living in Canada.
We had a lot of Syrians with us when the first wave of Syrian refugees came to Canada; now we don’t have as many Syrians. The Somali community is also big. Eritreans, Ethiopians. At certain times we had a lot of Congolese, but now there are just a few. Now it is just such a mix of different nationalities. We have people from Bangladesh, we have people from Myanmar, we have people from India, Nicaragua, Djibouti – it is just a mix of people from all over.
I myself live in the south end of Winnipeg. When we came in 2009 there were not a lot of visible minorities living there. It seems like just a few days ago! But it’s a long time. And really, Winnipeg has changed a lot. It used to be that I was the only visible minority on the bus, but now it’s just normal to see people of colour around.
I’ve been told once: Go back to Africa! But that was my only direct experience with racism since moving here. But, you know, sometimes racism is not something you see, right? It’s out there, but you don’t see it. I found that especially when applying for jobs that I knew I was very qualified for. I would often wonder to myself: if I were not a visible minority, would I have maybe gotten that job? But you never know, lots of things going into it. But I think racism is still there, with us – there are people that are still not comfortable with immigration, not comfortable with other people that are not like them. I witnessed it happen to one of our residents on the bus one time, two friends were just really insulting to her, saying: Don’t talk to us, go back to your country – this is not your country. So we do see that.
For us as a family, or even individuals, coming here has given us so many opportunities. It’s given us the chance to dream big. Canada is our country now – what we want is the best outcome for the country, the best outcome for everyone that lives here.
And education is very important. Not only does it give you the means to take care of yourself, but it enlightens your mind. So if you are educated, you look at things differently. So with racism, you know, it all depends on what someone’s outlook is. When I see an instance of racism, do I look at it as an opportunity to educate someone, or should I just let it bother me?
I love Winnipeg now. I got used to the cold, and it’s very much a small city – people know people. You go to places and meet the same people in different settings. People are nice, they are polite. They are kind – they help out. We got a lot of help when we first came. One lady helped us find furniture because we really didn’t have anything, just mattresses on the floor. She found us plates, dishes, all of that. It was really nice, people have been kind. We’ve really been helped by people along the way.
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