Having no knowledge about student loans when she first arrived in Canada in her late teens, Harvinder Sandhu worked four jobs to pay her way through college.
Although she spoke English fluently at the time, she might have saved herself years of stress as a newcomer if she had known more about available resources in her new country.
Today, Sandhu is the one giving advice.
A speaker of Punjabi who gets by in Urdu as well, Sandhu is an integral part in the Settlement and Integration Program offered at the George Mackie Library.
It’s a service run by Options Community Services for immigrant and refugee newcomers, giving then information about such things as local culture, the labour market and paperwork.
Sandhu says newcomers are often given incorrect advice by friends and relatives – with a potential waste of time and money or misdirected educational upgrades in pursuit of employment.
With a staff of 12-15 people who handle all sorts of questions in languages such as Arabic, Korean, Chinese, Spanish, Tagalog and Punjabi, the settlement workers – a term Sandhu admits is a bit vague – offer the type of advice that helps immigrants deal with a Canadian bureaucracy that can seem Byzantine.
Settlement workers inform newcomers about such things as assistance programs offered by different levels of government and building credit history though the use of credit cards – which weren’t used in India with regularity until about 10 years ago.
The most common request settlement workers get is advice about finding work.
It’s a daunting task when qualifications, language, education, resumes and Canadian employment regulations come into play.
“I have to get to know them a little bit.”
Often immigrants find that highly regarded careers in their old countries mean little in Canada, and that educational challenges seem insurmountable in the short-term.
It’s no urban myth that there are Vancouver-area taxi drivers who were doctors in India, says Sandhu, adding many educated people formerly employed in respected fields end up in menial jobs.
While those coming from India have their challenges, some are from places such as Pakistan or Somalia and come from refugee camps. They’ve had lives so unstructured, many of them list birthdays of Jan. 1 on government forms – meaning they don’t know when they were born.
These immigrants are often advised to get used to making – and keeping – appointments.
“I’m still struggling with some of them,” Sandhu says with a smile.
The settlement service started in 1992 with a handful of volunteers. To keep the B.C. government-funded program running, Options has partnered with Progressive Intercultural Services Society (PICS) and S.U.C.C.E.S.S, and has served 3,953 clients from October 2011 to March 2012.
Offered as an outreach program at North Delta’s George Mackie Library and Surrey’s City Centre Library, the service runs at the Fleetwood, Guildford and North Surrey Recreation Centres, and will expand into the Newton, South Surrey and Cloverdale Recreation Centres in September with a Youth-Can program to assist youths aged 15-25 who may be at risk of falling through the cracks in the Canadian education system.
Settlement workers are available by appointment at the George Mackie Library (8440 112 St.) on Tuesdays from 1-5 p.m. (Punjabi and English) and Thursdays from 1-5 p.m. (Mandarin and English).
They are also available by appointment at the City Centre Library (Room 203, 10350 University Dr.) on Mondays from 4:30-8:30 p.m. (Korean, Spanish and English), Wednesdays from 4:30-8:30 p.m. (Punjabi and English) and Fridays from 3-7 p.m. (Mandarin, Cantonese and English.)
Assistance in languages such as Arabic, Somali, Urdu, Hindi, Vietnamese and Tagalog is available through Options Community Services in its main office at 13520 78 Ave.
To book an appointment or for more information, visit www.options.bc.ca, call 604-572-4060 or email firstname.lastname@example.org