Ariam Wolde-Giorgis doesn’t remember much about her life before coming to Canada, but that doesn’t diminish her experiences as a young immigrant finding her place in an adopted land. From Eritrea, a country located on the horn of Africa, Wolde-Giorgis came to Canada as a refugee when she was just shy of her fourth birthday, first settling in Winnipeg, Manitoba, before moving to Calgary, Alberta, in 1997. Today, the 27-year-old helps others find where they belong through her role as the community engagement coordinator at the Federation of Calgary Communities. For her passion and dedication in building an inclusive community in Calgary, the energetic overachiever received the Immigrant of Distinction Award (“Achievement under 40”) from Immigrant Services Calgary this year.
To those who know her, it comes as no surprise that Wolde-Giorgis chose a career that focuses on strengthening community ties. Even as a child in elementary school, she was concerned with integration. She started a newsletter when she was in Grade 5 because, “Our school didn’t have a newsletter and other kids did,” she says. “I thought it was important for us to be able to talk about what we wanted to talk about and share information that was important to us.”
In order to promote awareness of her culture, Wolde-Giorgis also organized a pot luck event at her school, inviting her Eritrean classmates to bring in food from their home country to share with their classmates. “It was a really great way to share what our culture was,” she says.
Importance of getting involved
The importance of being involved in the community was reinforced in Wolde-Giorgis by her parents when she was young. “My dad volunteered for different organizations like local Eritrean community associations and African groups as well Southern Alberta Heritage Language Association,” says Wolde-Giorgis, who often tagged along, volunteering her own time at various events and activities with her dad. Her parents’ involvement with various non-profit and community organizations opened Wolde-Giorgis’ eyes to the importance of getting involved.
“It showed me a way to celebrate our culture while learning more about my own and others,” she says, also crediting her early volunteering with strengthening her leadership skills and providing opportunities to connect with others.
“I wouldn’t be so involved in different volunteer opportunities now or as I grew up if it weren’t for those times I tagged along. Whether it was making posters, painting banners or organizing/planning events, I learned and experienced more by being part of it, rather than only attending such events,” she says.
Becoming involved in her new home country became truly important to Wolde-Giorgis. “I wanted to belong to something,” she explains, adding that the community activities she participated in forged a sense of connection to her new country, something she works to address among other newcomers in her position today with the Federation of Calgary Communities, which provides programs, support and services to more than 200 member not-for-profit organizations that improve neighbourhood life in Calgary.
“We know from social research that lacking social connections is as damaging to your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day,” she says. Wolde-Giorgis recognizes that newcomers often experience higher levels of stress and isolation when they arrive in Canada and says that becoming involved with local community organizations can provide a sense of belonging that they lack when first immigrating.
And who knows … it might even lead to a career, as it did for Wolde-Giorgis. “I didn’t intentionally start volunteering to build a career but because I saw something I wanted to be part of and help with. But my experiences ended up doing just that,” she says.
As a high school student, Wolde-Giorgis was heavily involved with student council and helped to organize social events, but soon realized she could use her talents to do much more. “As I got older, I wanted to do something more,” she says. She began volunteering at the Eritrean Language and Cultural School Centre in Calgary after the deaths of a few Eritrean youth. It was here that she realized that there was a lack of support for immigrants in her community, especially youth from her home country Eritrea. She began teaching Tigrinya (the language of Eritrea) to a group of adolescents and launched the Eritrean Youth Awards where youth were recognized for their athletic, academic and volunteer achievements. This experience had a strong impact on shaping Wolde-Giorgis’ future.
“I knew there was a lack of awareness of opportunities and supports for immigrant youth, especially when factors of socio-economic status are considered because I was an immigrant youth myself. But seeing all these amazing kids who have so much potential and who just need support or to be told about opportunities to shine made me want to be involved,” she says.
Wolde-Giorgis then sought other ways to support immigrants and began to volunteer her time with other organizations including Help Portrait Calgary and Catholic Family Services’ Family and Schools Together (FAST) program.
Community key to newcomer success
Recognizing that community involvement was the key to newcomer success in Canada, Wolde-Giorgis combined her volunteer experience with her passion for community and decided to pursue a career in community development, attending the University of Calgary to study sociology with a concentration in ethnicity, immigration and multiculturalism. “Our lives are sometimes so difficult and we have to work so hard for even small successes or comforts. I wanted to figure out how to change this,” she says.
She now spends her days helping to encourage more involvement from diverse populations in community life. “We know that immigrants are not as involved in community activity with the host society. I try to advocate for the opportunity to be part of community associations so they can influence services and programs that are available in their neighbourhoods,” she says.
“It is important for immigrants to be open and interested in reaching out, and building connections,” she says.
Although she admits newcomers often have a hard time taking that first step, Wolde-Giorgis wants everyone to know how much they will be appreciated if they do. “It’s sometimes scary putting yourself out there, but, in my experience, organizers or other volunteers are really friendly and are often just happy to have someone helping out,” she says. Volunteering in these supportive environments, she says, helps newcomers to develop skills or interests in their new country; skills that are often recognized by employers.
Getting involved is also a great way to make friends and build networks. “I have made many friends, of different backgrounds, through volunteering,” says Wolde-Giorgis. Volunteering is also a great way to help newcomers overcome the feelings of isolation and stress that often plague them in their first years in their new country. “It’s human nature to want to feel like you belong and be part of something,” she says. “Plus, it feels great to give back!”
By Lisa Evans