Note: This story was written by one of our amazing volunteers, Fiorella Benini.
I am originally from Uruguay and I have lived 19 years in Canada. I have three kids (two born in Uruguay and one born in Canada). I used to work as a Spanish Interpreter, which led me to the opportunity to volunteer helping ESL teachers teach English to kids (beginning around 2010). That experience taught me how fulfilling it is to volunteer.
I started volunteering with Reception House in 2018 helping Pamela Rojas in her ‘Art with Pamela’ program as well as English classes for newcomer kids. I had worked at Reception House as a Spanish Interpreter in the past but I was also studying to be an ESL teacher at the time, so I found it very rewarding being able to help newcomers in their language acquisition. The experience of helping kids is so fulfilling. It felt great to be able to help them, and I also learned a lot about other cultures and countries. Every day I volunteered I would come home and feel that I had actually travelled to different countries. I could see my world from a new point of view. This experience gave me a new appreciation for the things we have in Canada and to not take everything for granted.
In 2019, I started doing 1-on-1 ESL classes for adults. I was matched with a Syrian lady that was about to have a baby and could not attend English classes. The experience was extremely rewarding. Besides being able to help, I learned more about people from Syria and their culture. I actually discovered that Uruguay (my home country) and Syria have something in common! Syrians drink “mate”, which is a type of tea that South Americans drink. For some reason, Syrians brought “mate” from South America and it is now a common drink in Syria.
While helping with English, I began to learn some Arabic from my student which was fun. I even tried to write some Arabic and I got great laughs from my newcomer friend. I also learned, by watching Syrian TV, how beautiful Syria is.
I also started running a conversation club at Reception House for kids and teenagers. In those classes I get to learn and laugh with the kids. I sometimes don’t understand how these kids, who have gone through so many different experiences of leaving everything in another country, can be so happy and uplifting. They come to Canada, knowing very little English, not knowing where they will move to or if they will attend school the next day, and they still have these bright smiles on their faces.
One of the most important lessons that I noticed, when coming to Canada myself, was that I was lucky that I had learned English beforehand so I didn’t encounter many obstacles. I had not realized how easy English is for speakers that use the same alphabet. By volunteering at Reception House I got to understand how extremely difficult it is to learn English when your native language uses another alphabet.
Since COVID-19 hit, I haven’t been able to visit the lady from Syria that I’ve been helping, but we have still been able to stay in contact through phone and video conferencing. She had her baby in January, and that, along with the winter season plus COVID has made her stay inside for months. I realize that what newcomers need the most is social interaction, because sometimes, they get isolated in their homes. This is especially true for women in particular. The winter in Canada is very difficult for newcomers and that only adds to their isolation.
I love Reception House because everybody is treated like family and there is a great feeling of belonging. I highly recommend volunteering there and I can assure any potential volunteers that it will be a priceless experience. It not only gives the gift of feeling good about helping others but also makes you understand the people that come to Canada. You get to appreciate what we already have and to learn that, even with differences in culture, clothing, eating habits and language, at the end of the day, the values for a human being are always the same. It gives you an indescribable feeling of connection with the whole world.
Newcomers bring rich knowledge and new perspectives that can enrich Canadian culture and society. It is our responsibility as Canadians to enable them to fulfill their potential.