By Lyonel Doherty
Despite doing a lot for immigrants, the South Okanagan Immigrant and Community Services (SOICS) continues to face several challenges in the region.
These were highlighted by Executive Director Tahira Saeed last week during the Rotary Club of Osoyoos luncheon at the Best Western.
Saeed began by saying SOICS serves temporary foreign workers, immigrants, refugees, post-secondary international students and naturalized Canadians.
Each year the society services an average of 1,500 clients originating from more than 80 different countries.
She noted they provide several services including language training leading to workshops that generate Canadian certifications for Foodsafe, first aid, Serving it Right, WHIMIS and SuperHost.
Saeed said they help clients with reams of paperwork required by the government. They offer one-on-one support in their Community Connections program provided by volunteer mentors. For example, some immigrants from Thailand and Vietnam need help with their pronunciation of words.
“Sometimes clients want to appear for their driver’s test, so we help them with that,” she said.
In addition to other requirements, immigrants applying for Canadian citizenship must be able to correctly answer 15 out of 20 multiple-choice questions, Saeed informed the club.
The SOICS group also provides child-minding, she pointed out. She explained this is very different from daycare and is only offered to clients attending language classes or workshops.
Saeed mentioned the biggest difference they see in immigrants’ resumes (compared to Canada) is the personal information provided. For example, some immigrants have their photographs on their resume, their parents’ names, their religion and marital status.
Saeed said many immigrants come to Canada based on their training and profession.
“But once they come here due to lack of Canadian experience in that field, they are not able to obtain jobs in those fields.”
So when they are ready they complete their credential evaluation, which is a three-month process at a cost of $350.
Saeed said people choose to immigrate to Canada for many reasons, such as better education for their children and cleaner air. “In some cases it is because we have traffic laws that people have to follow.”
She noted the top two categories of clients they serve is immigrants coming from India (Punjab) and immigrants from the Philippines, the majority of which come to Canada through the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.
Saeed said 99 per cent of Indo-Canadians come to Canada through family sponsorship via spouse, sibling or child. Most of these immigrants work in the agricultural sector, while many from the Philippines work in hospitality.
Saeed said the number one challenge facing SOICS is that the public and clients think the society is Canada Immigration.
“Often times people will come in and say, ‘oh, my card expired, can you just give me a new one?’ It doesn’t work like that.”
She said another challenge is that the community in general thinks that immigrants refer to visible minorities.
That is not true.
“Anyone who’s immigrated here, say 50 years ago, and is now a Canadian citizen, is still an immigrant; they can still come to use and ask for support or help.”
Saeed said they had a lot of struggles with School District 67 because they wouldn’t refer Caucasian immigrants to SOICS for help. That’s because they thought immigrants were visible minorities.
She stated that some former immigrants from the UK and the US, who are now Canadian citizens, think that they are not eligible for services from SOICS. But they are.
Saeed said when she and her husband were accepted as Canadian immigrants, based on their professional training, they couldn’t get jobs in their field because they didn’t have “Canadian experience.” And that is what a lot of SOICS clients are struggling with.
Another challenge, particularly for the Oliver office, is the fact many people think it only serves Indo-Canadians. That’s why they are reaching out to people in Osoyoos and Oliver to let them know otherwise.
Saeed said some of their clients don’t have Internet service, and now that Greyhound bus services to and from Cawston and Keremeos have been eliminated, some clients are completely cut off.
One trend SOICS is seeing is many US immigrants who left Canada decided to go back to America to build their lives, but are now coming back to Canada. There was a pause in Saeed’s speech followed by laughter when someone asked, “Why is that?”
Nobody mentioned the name of America’s current President Donald Trump.
Saeed was asked if racism is still a problem for immigrants in the South Okanagan.
“I think raising awareness about racism is definitely required. With the fact that employers wanting to hire immigrants, with the fact that Canadians are willing to mentor these immigrants and build friendships, yes, there’s a positive environment.”
But she said they do find some people who are racist, but thankfully they don’t come across them very often.
“There is learning from both ends,” she pointed out.