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COVER STORY: North Shore newcomers
A rising number of highly educated immigrants working below their skill level are arriving in North and West Van.
Culture shock can happen at the most unexpected times.
Standing at a corner near Lonsdale Avenue, Mahsa Ramezani and her husband were deciding whether to cross the street.
“Let’s go, the car is waiting for us,” her husband said, glancing at a driver who had politely stopped a few feet away, even though there wasn’t a crosswalk.
“I couldn’t believe he was waiting for us. He was waiting for us to decide whether we wanted to cross the street,” recalls Ramezani with a laugh.
The contrast was so sharp with the “chaotic” bustling streets in Ramezani’s home city, Tehran, Iran, that the experience remains etched in her memory. Drivers in Tehran, she says, definitely wouldn’t wait for dawdling pedestrians.
This stereotypical Canadian politeness is one of countless examples that have caught Ramezani off guard during her six months in Canada.
Before joining her husband in North Van, he sent photos of North Shore scenery to encourage her to make the transcontinental move.
“The mountains look similar to my home town,” says Ramezani, speaking of the city where she grew up, Gorgan in northern Iran.
She was a doctor in Iran and is now studying for Canadian medical exams to match her degree, which will take another year.
Before Ramezani left, her mother packed Persian spices in her luggage that she thought wouldn’t be available in the Lower Mainland.
It turns out, however, there is an abundant supply of traditional ingredients within a few blocks of her new home in Upper Lonsdale.
“Here I was, 30,000 kilometres away, and it was like I was in a little Tehran,” says Ramezani.
“I didn’t have a chance to speak English anywhere.”
On her mother’s insistence, Ramezani began taking private English classes when she was a child and she was eager to start conversing with Canadians. But wherever she goes — grocery shopping, the bank, a restaurant — someone is always available to speak in Farsi.
Not needing English in North Van isn’t unexpected since nearly 11,000, or six per cent, of people living on the North Shore speak Farsi.
Making the transition easier, many kinds of traditional food are made within walking distance.
“I didn’t use to like a kind of ice cream [traditionally found in Iran], but when I saw it here, it made me happy and now I serve it to all my guests,” says Ramezani.
Even though there are many aspects of North Van that ward off homesickness, she still has to get accustomed to a much different way of life and is making a deliberate attempt to make friends with long-term Canadian residents.
“I’d never been to a Chinese market, so I went in one on Lonsdale. Now I’ll go there more.
“And it’s very safe here. I don’t think people from here are aware of how safe it is.”
Chemical engineer to live-in caregiver
Like Ramezani and her husband, who is also a doctor, many new immigrants are highly educated and most come to Canada in skilled worker or business class categories.
From 2006 to 2011, the North Shore saw a 23 per cent jump in immigration compared to the years 2001 to 2005. For the decade from 2001 to 2011, nearly 19,000 immigrants arrived on the North Shore, according to the North Shore Multicultural Society.
Iranian immigrants account for 22 per cent, making them the largest newcomer population. Other common countries of origin include China, Hong Kong and Taiwan (grouped together under Chinese), South Korea and the Philippines.
In total, more than a quarter (27 per cent) of people on the North Shore don’t speak English as their first language.
To help ease the transition, these groups can receive settlement services in their first languages at the North Shore Multicultural Society on East 15th Street near Lonsdale Avenue.
Even though Filipino immigrants are the fourth largest group, they don’t access services as much as other clients because of built-in family and friend support systems and knowledge of English before they arrive, says Kim Shetler, manager of settlement and community connections at the North Shore Multicultural Society.
For example, the number of Filipino immigrants nearly double that of Koreans, but Koreans are much more likely to access services.
Connections led Purita Cortez to move to Canada from the Philippines nine years ago to be a live-in caregiver. Trained as a chemical engineer, like many new immigrants she is working below her skill level but opted to come to Canada for her children’s future.
“It’s the easiest way to come to Canada if you don’t have a lot of money,” she says of being hired as a live-in caregiver. “If you apply as a skilled worker, you need a lot of money.”
She talked about her experience at North Van Library’s North Shore Stories, an event last weekend that highlighted nine immigrants’ stories.
While studying to be a live-in caregiver for six months, she also worked as a chemical engineer to support her children.
She applied to an international agency to find a job as soon as she finished the program.
After working in Canada for five years, she was granted permanent residency and her three children soon followed. They had a tough time getting used to Canada at first, but began to enjoy the North Shore when they made friends and enrolled in school.
“I was lucky I was hired,” Cortez tells the audience.
For hire: Plenty of skilled labour
Three per cent of clients at the North Shore Multicultural Society are live-in caregivers. They can apply for permanent residency after living in Canada for at least two years.
Most immigrants, however, arrive under federal skilled worker or business class.
Sara (Xi) Xu is from China, for example, and was educated as a lawyer in Florida before arriving in North Van six months ago with her husband, a project manager for the oil and gas industry and part of the skilled worker group.
While Xu is certified to practise in Florida and China, she is currently studying to take the bar exam to become a lawyer in B.C.
“My daughter was going to start school and I felt so much pressure for her. There was no focus on creativity,” says Xu. “I hadn’t been to Canada but I assumed it would have similar characteristics as the U.S.
“There isn’t as much distinction between rich and poor, as long as people are happy.”
Here in B.C., students start school around 9 a.m. and are off by 3 p.m., but Xu says her daughter, who is enrolled in a Grade 3 class at a North Van elementary school, would have been studying much longer hours if she was still living in China.
Working at the North Shore Multicultural Society, Shetler says she’s heard other clients mention the effects of constant academic pressure in the Chinese education system.
“I moved here with no friends, no family — knowing no one pretty much,” she says.
Like most other immigrants, she had to relearn everyday activities, such as how to take a bus, what to recycle and where riding a bike is allowed.
“It’s all different here, even the little things.”
Bozena Felsz arrived in B.C. from Poland in 1982, a time when European immigration made up a larger per cent of newcomers.
Her first home was in Terrace where she took English classes, along with a cup of coffee and cookies, from a woman who taught out of her trailer.
In exchange for gardening or painting a fence, she would read Reader’s Digest magazines with Mrs. Greg every weekday at 9 a.m. sharp.
It’s the first stories she read in English, such as when rescuers dropped beans over a small, isolated community so they could survive a harsh winter, that have stuck in her mind after 30 years.
Felsz and her husband then moved to North Van, where she found another English teacher who routinely made her “Canadian” soup, coleslaw and buns in her apartment. It was there that she learned Canadians like to be less formal and “help yourself” was a common phrase.
She has been teaching ESL classes at the North Shore Multicultural Society since 2009 and is a member of Toastmasters, where she practises speaking English in public.
Immigration from Europe peaked prior to the First World War between 1911 and 1912 and during the late 1950s, but newcomers from this region are becoming more rare. Since the 1970s, South Asia and China have been the main source countries to Canada.
Certain policies have been discriminatory against immigrants, such as in 1923 when the government passed the Chinese Immigration Act, which excluded Chinese people from entering Canada between 1923 and 1947. An official apology was announced in 2006.
And, as another example, immigrants from Poland, where Felsz is from, and other “non-preferred” countries such as Hungary and Romania weren’t allowed into Canada during the 1920s unless they worked as farmers or servants.
“Like a newborn baby”
Unfamiliar with the territory, Ramezani was uneasy the first time she rode a bus in North Van.
“I stood at the front. I stared at the bus driver and he stared back at me. I didn’t know how to get off,” she looks back at the experience with laugh.
In Iran, she says, buses aren’t as popular because taxis are cheap.
These seemingly little changes add up and take a while to get used to.
“I knew everything [back in Iran] about politics, literature. Now here I’m like a newborn baby.”
Although people living on the North Shore have been “very nice” to her, she still feels like she doesn’t belong.
“It’s natural for people to see [immigrants] in a different way… It’s unfair but it’s reality.
“They could be thinking, ‘why does she get that job?’”
Once she finds permanent work and a close group of colleagues, Ramezani predicts she may start feeling more at home.
To help ease the transition, the North Shore Multicultural Society’s Welcoming Action Committee is hosting four community dialogue sessions that help both long-term residents and newcomers develop welcoming and inclusive communities.
“When immigrants feel welcomed and included in the community, not only do they thrive as individuals, but their families thrive too,” says Elizabeth Jones, executive director at the society. “It’s a win-win situation that we can’t afford to ignore.”
Speaking at the North Van Library’s storytelling event, Felsz briefly mentions her experience trying to fit in.
“Canadians are very polite but too private,” she says as the audience nods and laughs in agreement.