In many major cities across Canada, people born outside of Canada and immigrating to Canada within the last five years account for approximately 20 percent of the population. These new Canadian residents come from different walks of life and circumstances. Some are leaving war-torn, strife-ridden countries as refugees. Others are well-educated and highly skilled individuals looking for a better life or an adventure in a new country. Regardless of their circumstances, all face many challenges as they try and re-settle and integrate into Canada.
Jesus Taught the Importance of the Second Great Commandment
Christ modeled the importance of serving those in need regardless of their ethnicity, culture, or language. If you consider the parable of the “Good Samaritan,” Jesus intentionally chose a Samaritan to answer a lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbour?” (Luke 10:29) In Christ’s day, the Jews despised Samaritans because of their ethnic background as well as cultural and religious differences.
Yet, Jesus used a Samaritan to teach one of the most important gospel doctrines: “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matthew 19.19). That commandment includes people who are “different.”
JustServe Opens Opportunities for Service and Friendship
My wife and I are JustServe specialists in our stake. With a wave of recent refugees coming from Syria and other places to Canada, we felt like a good place to start the JustServe program in our community was looking for ways to assist with the settlement of new permanent residents and refugees. We invited representatives of the Syrian community, Volunteer Lethbridge, and Lethbridge Immigration Services to a fireside in our stake center where we learned about various service opportunities directed towards people new to Canada. We also heard from volunteers involved in providing support. The highlight of the evening was listening to Syrian refugees speak from the church pulpit, via a translator, about living in Syria, staying in refugee camps, and then coming to Canada. Afterwards, we shared refreshments and mingled informally with our new friends.
We were so moved by the evening that my wife and I volunteered with our local Lethbridge Immigration Services. Because of my research background, we joined their nascent efforts to conduct both qualitative and quantitative research on the experiences of new immigrants in our city. Our findings highlighted many unmet needs as the newcomers struggled to integrate into society.
As we tried to understand the barriers to them feeling like they are part of a “welcoming community,” many told us that a significant issue was that they lacked opportunities to connect or talk to established citizens. Their English proficiency was, of course, a significant barrier to making these connections happen. Even though they were attending English Second Language (ESL) classes available in our city, being in a classroom with other ESL classmates was not the same as having a natural, organic conversation with established residents.
Organizing a Cultural Connections Club
Armed with these research findings and in partnership with Lethbridge Immigration Services, we created the Cultural Connections Club. The purpose of this club was not only to provide opportunities to practice English conversation but also to foster connections between newcomers to Canada and more established Canadians. We recruited established English-speaking members of the community through the JustServe website while Lethbridge Immigration Services recruited immigrants through their networks.
We meet monthly and usually play a “conversation game.” This consists of a question and answer game: with questions that aim to stimulate sharing and connection. Yes, it takes a higher level of English skills for these newcomers to play these conversational games, but they appreciate the opportunity to try, to make mistakes, and to feel supported. Sometimes we play board games where even people with low English language skills can learn a new game and enjoy themselves. Another time, we held a service project with approximately 35 Syrian refugees, and together we built 600 hygiene kits for donation to poor families living in the city.
Special Opportunities for Teenagers
Throughout all of our activities outlined above, we have tried to involve families, particularly those with teenage children. Interestingly, a recent study of teenagers found that those engaged in service to strangers, compared to people who are known to them, had even more of a positive effect on their well-being and self esteem (See Figure 1).
Researchers speculate this is because serving strangers (compared to family members or friends) represents a relatively high-cost behavior, something that goes above and beyond. When teens engage in these sorts of behaviors consistently, they are less likely to focus on themselves and their own problems. They are more likely to see the good in what they have and feel hopeful. They also gain self-confidence by helping others and seeing that they are important and needed in their communities.
Following Jesus Christ
We also think this research on teenagers’ experiences serving strangers is generalizable to all. Christ taught that we should do as “ye have seen me do” (3 Nephi 27:21). What did the Savior do? Serving strangers not only fulfills Christ’s commandment that “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Mark 12:31) but also directly provides blessings of well-being for those that step out of their comfort zone and minister to strangers (new Canadians) amongst them. We invite all to do likewise!