Today I went to a place that I had discovered almost by accident a few weeks ago, the ISS or Immigrant Services Society of British Columbia. It was a small building at the edge of Yaletown (which to the uninitiated, is the rapidly growing southeastern end of the city that looks remarkably like parts of Manhattan — no wonder they shoot so many movies that are supposed to be taking place in New York City there). According to the pamphlet at the front desk:
The ISS is a non-governmental organization that receives funding from the government to assist immigrants and refugees in different ways.
Our mandate at ISS’s Settlement office is to help you adjust to life in the Greater Vancouver area. We understand that moving to a new country can be very stressful.
Our team of professionals can guide you, in over 25 different languages, through the many challenges and opportunities that Canada presents. Our services range from providing:
- temporary housing
- information, orientation, and
- referral assistance.
When you have a question, we will share with you different options/ideas so that you feel confident to make a decision. If we can not help you directly, we will do our best to ensure that you are linked to other services and resources.
The referral information is just what I needed. I entered and told the receptionist that I was there to get some information on health insurance, and she told me to take a seat in the waiting area. It was nearly full, with people who looked like they were predominantly from Africa and the Middle East. I sat next to a guy with a Rastafarian hairdo under a cap. I doubt if anyone else in the room was a native English speaker. After a short wait (about 15 minutes or so), I was met by a very helpful and patient woman named Rita who I found out was from Ghana (via Senegal). In the coincidence department, I learned from her that prior to coming to Canada, she had spent about 6 months in Takoma Park, Maryland in the early nineties. She preferred Canada, she said, because it was far more ‘peaceful’ here.
We also chatted about the talking drums of her native land, as well as the usage of the word ‘partner’ here to denote one’s spouse or gay partner. Rita felt that it was a delicate way of hiding whether one was gay or not, because in certain parts of the country one could be still be shunned, and the term ‘partner’ allowed someone to hide their sexual orientation behind a gender-neutral designation. After providing me with some helpful referrals and phone numbers, Rita wished me well and I offered the same to her.
I’d have to say that the whole experience was humbling. Pam and I are very lucky to come from a rich country, with resources, family, and skills all working in our favor. We have so fewer problems than the people who were at the ISS, I suspect. In fact, I learned from Rita that there were people living in refugee camps for over a decade, waiting to get into Canada. Some had children while living in the camps. It made the few weeks I’ve been waiting for my work permit seem a little less important. Nevertheless, we are immigrants as well, and the folks at ISS made little distinction that I could discern between me and any of the others who were sitting, making phone calls, reading the free newspapers, and getting information from the staff there.
I came home just as the rain was ending and the late afternoon sunset made one of its frequent appearances. I had gotten some extra groceries for dinner, including some frozen whole cranberries, which I later made into cranberry sauce. Yesterday at Granville Market we picked up two breaded turkey ‘breasts’ (really cutlets wrapped around stuffing) with sage and cranberry stuffing from the Turkey farm stand, as well as some sweet potatoes. I baked the potatoes and turkey, and made some peas with pearl onions (had those lying around from a couple weeks or so ago for a beef stew).
Pam and I both called family dinners in the East, where everyone was finished with their Thanksgiving meals. In a little while, we lit the fire (well, turned on the switch and the gas flames leapt up, right on cue). It wasn’t a huge feast, but it was tasty, nourishing, containing turkey and cranberry sauce, and fine for just the two of us. Many past family gatherings in different combinations and locations make me want to hang on to this American tradition more than some of the others. I hear that most Vancouverites observe the time-honoured ritual of driving down to the outlets just south of the border tomorrow, for the big sales that are the starting gun of the Holiday Shopping Season. It’s hard to get much of a Norman Rockwell glow from that, I guess.
At any rate, Happy Thanksgiving, America, from two immigrants to Vancouver, BC.