It was a good day to talk to Chokri. He just got the results of his language test which showed that his skill level has moved up to intermediate in speaking. To think he had just started learning English a few months ago, it is indeed an achievement worth celebrating.
When he arrived in Manitoba in December last year, he couldn’t understand English. He could laugh about it now, but he would just say “okay, okay” whenever bus drivers spoke to him even if he didn’t understand them. He did this because drivers would usually repeat what they’ve said and he still couldn’t understand. He quickly realized that learning English was necessary for everyday life. He also didn’t like the prospect of being dependent (his wife had to accompany him everywhere he went) so he resolved to study English immediately.
Francophones from Tunisia
Chokri and his family are from Djerba which is a lovely island in the southern coast of Tunisia, a North African country. French is widely spoken there, so he already has one official language under his belt. “In Tunisia we didn’t speak English in society. We are Francophone. Our local media is also in French or Arabic,” he said.
Chokri and his wife have advanced degrees and are experienced professionals in their respective fields. In fact, his wife recently got hired at the University of St. Boniface where she will start teaching management and finance in September. Meanwhile, Chokri will also be entering the same university, but as a student (Baccalauréat en éducation). Despite having 26 years of experience in the academe – teaching physics and chemistry for 25 years and serving as a Vice Director for a year – he needs to be certified to teach high school. Nevertheless, he is looking forward to the process and does not consider it a challenge. “Challenge is a big word. Really, I am always optimistic. Anyway I have the education and experience. And now (by studying with English Online), I have online experience. As long as you are determined, I am sure that you’re going to succeed,” he said. “I have no intention of leaving my career. I love teaching and helping students. It is a noble profession and I believe that educators play an important role in society,” he added.
Before school starts, he is maximizing his time learning English, taking care of his kids (the couple has two teenagers), and learning more about his new home. While things are complicated because of the ongoing pandemic, he is still able to discover new things about his environment. “When I arrived, we didn’t have a car. I took the bus for grocery shopping. The temperature was -20, which I have not experienced in any other country. After three months, I discovered that it was possible to call a taxi to take groceries to my house. In my country, if you call a taxi and take it for a short distance, some drivers will not be happy. Then later, a parent of my son’s friend told me about delivery. It’s a good idea and I was happy with this suggestion. This advice was a small thing but it made us feel that we are not alone. However, in many cases we didn’t choose delivery because we could not see what we were buying. And it had to reach a certain amount (minimum order is about $70). So we still went to the stores, by bus or any means. This way we get exactly what we need. I hope to succeed in getting my driver’s license soon but in the meantime, we can ride our bikes in summer. It’s great because we also get exercise and we see the beauty all around us,” he said.
“I learned that when learning English, you need to focus on SMART goals. I plan and choose the suitable process of learning to get results. So I began by learning the basics of listening, reading and speaking. And then I will focus on writing skills as a long term goal. I attended all of the classes to help me and I can see that I have improved based on the evaluation”
Learning English online
“I wish I had known about English Online earlier,” he said. Chokri was first referred to a face to face EAL class at River East Transcona (RETIS). When the quarantine started, he didn’t want to reduce his time learning English so he was referred to EO’s Live & Learn program.
At first, he had a bit of difficulty because he was not used to online learning. But when he got used to the technical aspect, participating became a breeze. “I attend all of the classes of Blaine, Pam and Nastashya. I don’t do all my homework (laughs) because I’m busy but I always participate fully. I really want to progress. I just wish I had more time. So for now, I prioritize and use my SMART goals,” he said. As a testament to his diligence, he relates his experience with Blaine, one of our instructors: “I think on the first day, Blaine asked me to write a short introduction about myself. What I did instead was write my entire history! So I think this is why Blaine remembers me and recommended me for a story,” he said with a chuckle.
“I like the complementarity of all the events,” he continues. “I feel that the designer of these courses saw to it that the courses go together – I mean that you can’t take just one and not attend the others. There is complementarity even in the way they deliver the courses,” he said. “I think your work online is innovative. It’s very interesting. You have the potential to have more students because of technology. And I think you’ll have a lot more opportunities to help students during this time of pandemic”, he added.
The educator also shared how he learned how to maximize his time. “I learned that when learning English, you need to focus on SMART goals. I plan and choose the suitable process of learning to get results. So I began by learning the basics of listening, reading and speaking. And then I will focus on writing skills as a long term goal. I attended all of the classes to help me and I can see that I have improved based on the evaluation,” he said. Another proof of this is a recent achievement. He was able to go to a doctor’s appointment on his own. “Three months ago, I would never have thought that this could happen. I would have needed my wife’s help for this. I can now communicate with my doctor and I was very happy. But I know that there is still a lot of work that I should do. English vocabulary is very rich and I should choose the best way to preserve the level I have now,” he said.
Because of his progress, Chokri sees that his prospects have expanded. “The first possibility is to have the certification to start working as an auxillary (assistant) at one of the high schools. On the second year, I can get my permanent certification and start teaching. Another possibility for the long term is to progress with my English and finish my certification. In this case, I can work at any school, whether Francophone or English,” he said.
Beautiful Manitoba and Manitobans
Chokri and his family are taking advantage of the good weather to get on their bikes, see the sights and learn more about their new home. “We love Manitoba’s wonderful rivers and lakes. We love its overall landscape. It’s very beautiful. But more than the rivers and lakes, we like the people of Manitoba. People are friendly and helpful and this is very important when you’re a newcomer. Our neighbor has this sign in their garden that says ‘No matter where you come from, you’re welcome here.’ This touched my heart. To me this is significant because it makes us feel safe and supported,” he said.
He ends the interview with this advice: “My advice to newcomers is not to waste time. Try as early as possible to register to English Online and make your time at home productive. Diagnose your own linguistic needs and then set your SMART goals. Ask your facilitator’s help and choose the right learning program for you. All the tools are there for you to use and succeed.”
Being the thoughtful person that he is, he also took this opportunity to thank those who have been helping him in his settlement journey. “I would like to thank you and the entire Live & Learn team especially Blaine, Pam and Nastashya who are extremely friendly, helpful and efficient. I am also grateful to Valeria from the Immigrant Centre, and the River East Transcona Immigrant Services Team and my EAL teacher Angie Anns who provided fabulous help during the difficult period of COVID-19. They were helping us even before the pandemic and so we never felt alone. I would also like to thank Manitoba Start, Pluri-Elles, CDEM and especially Accueil Francophone for their services before departure and during our first months after our arrival in Winnipeg,” he said.
“Dance is in my soul. You know us Mexicans, once we hear music, we have to dance (makes a gesture with her hands as if she’s dancing)!”
This made us laugh as we wrapped up the interview. Gabriela was going to attend “Aqua Zumba” later in the day and she was excited about it. She explains “it’s a fall program that the RM Gimli runs for eight weeks and it’s amazing because you hear music, you dance, and you are in a pool. There are only 10 spots in the class because of the pandemic. But in the summer, we held it in an outdoor pool here in Gimli.” Hearing her describe the program made me wish there was dancing in the pool in my area too.
As you can imagine, Gabriela is the kind of person who is bubbly and full of life. Aside from her work and English studies (and Zumba of course), she told me how gardening, camping with her husband in Manitoba’s beautiful parks, working out (she showed me her home gym) and cooking great food fills her days. In her five years in Canada, she has learned that you need to find time for the things you enjoy and make you happy to live a good life.
From Guanajuato, Mexico to Gimli, Manitoba
Gabriela moved to Canada for love. Her husband is a born and bred Manitoban from a small town called Komarno. She moved to Gimli in 2015 to join him, leaving behind a successful career in human resources and her bakery business in Mexico. “When I got here, it was not easy. I had to start from scratch. I am just so lucky that I have the support of my fabulous husband and his relatives who embraced me as a part of their family,” she said.
She also realized that she needed to refresh her English skills since what was taught in Mexico was very basic. “What we learned from school was the same every year. There’s the past tense, present tense, and all that. English is very different once you’re in Canada,” she said. This limited her job prospects but because of her can-do spirit, Gabriela found a job right away after she had her work permit. A local bakery hired her immediately after she told the owner all about her successful business in Mexico.
“It is a pleasure to learn with Irina and Yini. The weekly lessons are delivered through the internet and it’s very personalized. They are also cheerful, motivating and accommodating. When I need to re-schedule, they are always very understanding. This makes me want to do better in my studies.”
Discovering settlement services
After two years of working in the bakery, her employer unfortunately had to let her go. The business was seasonal and they could not afford to keep her. It was then that her husband told her about the Manitoba Jobs and Skills Development Centre which provided employment assistance. A staff member there helped update her resume to the Canadian format. She also took a language test at WELARC where she learned about English Online. “I didn’t know that these services existed and I could learn online. English Online appealed to me because I live in the country, I didn’t have to travel. I don’t like driving in the city,” she said.
With her newly-tailored resume, Gabriela applied and was hired by the Gimli Seniors Resource Council Inc. It’s a job that she is proud of because it allows her to serve the community and do something she loves – cooking. “The opportunity to cook different things and be part of this amazing service to bring food to the seniors makes me feel so happy and so part of the community,” she said.
She also enrolled in LINC Home Study with English Online to improve her English skills and to be able to eventually apply for citizenship. “It is a pleasure to learn with Irina and Yini. The weekly lessons are delivered through the internet and it’s very personalized. They are also cheerful, motivating and accommodating. When I need to re-schedule, they are always very understanding. This makes me want to do better in my studies,” she said.
Gabriela is already reaping the benefits of her diligent studies. “Since learning online, I feel confident about speaking to others, not just to my husband. I like talking to the seniors at my work and checking up on them. Even my friends have noticed how much my English has improved,” she shares. She is optimistic that she’ll reach her goal of getting a CLB score of all eights (for the four skill areas) as she continues to persevere.
Another support service she discovered was assistance for her spousal visa application. “I was browsing through Facebook and saw that the Immigrant Centre can help us file our papers for spousal visa. I was very impressed with all the resources. They helped us with the translations for all the documents that I needed to submit. That was awesome because I didn’t need to hire a lawyer. Now, I tell everybody about all these amazing services,” she said.
Manitoba is my home
Recently, Gabriela had to deal with another major development in her life. She was diagnosed with diabetes about three months ago. But as a testament to her resilience, she is able to deal with it in a positive way.
“Changing my diet was a big challenge for me. But after these months, I am doing very well. I think this experience has made me stronger. It made me realize that I have to change and stay active to have a good quality of life,” she said. It also made her appreciate Canada’s health care services. “Health care is very good quality here. It’s very complete,” she added.
This is why after five years, Gabriela can say that she has adapted well to life in Canada. She shares that she could not imagine living anywhere else. “I think Manitoba has everything, it has a great landscape, very friendly people, and with the local shopping I can do here, I can find my ingredients – tortillas, peppers, cheese, chorizo – and make the flavours that make me happy. I don’t have to miss them,” she said.
However, she does miss her friends and family back home. “I have a small family but we are very close. Being far from them is one of my biggest challenges. Being here means I am missing a kiss from my mom, a hug from my sister and not seeing how my little niece is growing up. Adapting here does not mean you forget your family and friends in your home country. You should always maintain communication with them. Awesome digital services help a lot in keeping close connection with our loved ones who are far away,” she said.
“I know my country is wonderful in so many aspects but I think that the quality of life here in Canada is 10 times better. When my friends ask me when I will go home, I tell them ‘I am home’,” Gabriela said. “This experience made me realize I have accomplished so many goals in my life here which helped me reinforce my self-esteem. Starting a new life at 45 is not easy but it is so rewarding,” she added.
Tips to newcomers:
- Prepare before you move here. “Know all that you can about jobs, services and resources. Be ready mentally and physically because the weather is going to be challenging mentally and physically. You also need to be ready to start a new life and leave the past in the past.”
- Be open -“You need to embrace different cultures. The people here in Gimli, I’m happy to say, are non-racist. They are very open. This makes me so happy to live here.”
- Follow the rules – “In my culture, sometimes some people don’t follow the rules. But you need to be aware that in Canada, the people are very nice but you need to follow the laws very well. If they say you cannot drive without a license, you don’t do it. If they say you need to have insurance, you need to have insurance.”
- Enjoy life -“Try to have different hobbies. Meet different people. Don’t be afraid to speak to people. At the start, it can be hard because they may not understand you but sooner or later, if you keep on practicing, you’re going to improve. Don’t speak only your native language. When you communicate with more people, you will be able to adapt better.”
- Ask for help –“If you don’t understand something, ask for help. Don’t do it all on your own. The government funds these wonderful services to help immigrants so that we can start learning and working right away.”
Brhan’s answer to the question “what do you like about Manitoba?” confused me.
She said “Oh, I like the shiny one. This one,” not realizing that she was pointing to snow. She added, “I love it so much, you know? I like looking at it from my window and it makes me happy when it’s so white and shiny. The sun with the snow – looking at it makes me happy!”
Quite an unusual response since most newcomers I’ve interviewed dreaded winter. But you see, Brhan has experienced winter before. She moved from Ethiopia to Denmark because her husband earned a scholarship there for his Masters and PhD. They had been living there for almost six years when they decided to move to Manitoba.
Memories of Copenhagen, Denmark
While in Copenhagen, Brhan and her husband grew their family to four. They were blessed with two sons which kept her busy. Later on Brhan was able to work part-time in a bakery and do cleaning jobs at the university where her husband was studying. They had built close ties there and felt part of a strong community. “We had a very social life in Denmark. We were connected with people from our church and our family there. Sometimes we miss that kind of environment. Even my son misses the get-togethers with friends after school. It’s very easy for kids to enjoy life there because there are many conveniences for them and winter is not like here,” Brhan said, pointing to Denmark’s mild climate.
Life was good but they realized that they needed to move for their children’s future. They were the only black kids at school and her eldest son started to have issues about this. “The kids just want to know so they touch his hair, skin, and ask him every day why he’s black,” Brhan said. It was heartbreaking for her to notice that her son was starting to resent the colour of his skin. The couple began thinking of going back to their home country or to one that is more multicultural and diverse. They thought of Canada and luckily, they had a friend who was living in Manitoba who was willing to sponsor them. Brhan and her family landed in Winnipeg in October 2015.
English is harder than Danish
“Before I came to Canada, my plan was to go to school, graduate with another professional degree, get a job in my field and our life will be better. I thought English was not that hard because I studied in English schools and universities so I felt that I will improve (my English) quickly. But when I went to school, I discovered that it takes time. It became stressful for me. I spent studying five to six hours but I didn’t learn the way I want. So I decided to stop”, Brhan said.
“Someone told me that it can take three to four years to have the level of English I wanted. I could study but that would mean that my husband would be the only one working. We have family in our home country that we support so I said I have to work. I went to the Academy of Learning College and took the entrance exam for Health Care Aide. I passed, scoring 98%. So I decided to continue with the Health Care Aide course. I finished it and started working after I graduated in 2017,” she relates.
“I would like to add that learning with English Online is helping me in many ways, not only with the language. Attending classes also helps me not to feel lonely when I am staying home by myself. They always encourage me in my studies. They also help me in my settlement by providing information about who to contact when I have issues.”
Meanwhile, her husband recommended that she try English Online to continue improving her language skills. She joined the Live & Learn program and studied in her spare time. “I attend mostly Coffee Chats. I remember when I started, I was so afraid to speak that I was shaking. I wish the teacher would skip me when it was my turn to speak. But now, I am better. I am not afraid to speak. Learning here has given me more confidence. I think it helps me a lot in many ways, especially in my listening. I can understand most of the words now. I may not be able to speak or write very well (or as I want) but I am learning. It’s good, I like it,” she said.
“I would like to add that learning with English Online is helping me in many ways, not only with the language. Attending classes also helps me not to feel lonely when I am staying home by myself. They always encourage me in my studies. They also help me in my settlement by providing information about who to contact when I have issues. For example, when I told Blaine that I want to be a business person, he told me who I should contact for a license. When I wasn’t able to work due to the pandemic, he told me that I am eligible to apply for some benefits like CRCB. I am so happy to know them,” she said.
Working as an essential worker and soon-to-be business woman
Before the pandemic, the couple was planning on setting up a store to sell meat products and groceries. “My husband is a food scientist. We were planning on creating our own formula and then selling the products. But the pandemic came. Now we have to wait a couple of months,” she said.
“It wasn’t my plan to be a health care aide,” she continues. “I was planning to be a nurse or to own a business (my plan A and plan B). I want to handle my own time and to be my own boss. I also think that it is going to be the best arrangement for me and my family. But I feel that I need more English, I need more confidence,” she said.
In the meantime, Brhan continues to study and work part time. This allows her to take care of her growing family (they also have a daughter now) and support her sons’ adjustment to Canadian life. Much like the snow she loves looking at, her future shines bright as she continues to improve her English skills and work on her plans.