Social isolation biggest challenge facing immigrants to P.E.I.

Mitch MacDonald comment@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on March 25, 2016

Diversity consultant Thilak Tennekone, left, and newcomer Keyvan Ashenaei were two of the speakers during a public awareness session at Stratford Town Hall recently recognizing International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Both have experienced their share of barriers and support when first settling in P.E.I., with Tennekone immigrating from Sri Lanka in the early 1990s and Ashenaei immigrating from Kuwait in 2012.

©THE GUARDIAN/Heather Taweel

Residents encouraged to reach out to newcomers, celebrate growing diversity on Island

STRATFORD – Many Canadians see the more visible barriers facing newcomers, from finding a job to the sheer logistics of settling into their unfamiliar surroundings.

However, diversity consultant Thilak Tennekone said there is a much more bothersome obstacle facing immigrants once they arrive in their new home.

That's the social isolation many of them feel while trying to adapt.

"We see all the other barriers. The social and cultural isolation is what we don't see.... But every immigrant experiences it every single day," said Tennekone, who experienced it personally in the early 1990s when he and his wife became the first Sri Lankan family to settle in P.E.I.

"The culture was completely different from our roots. So adapting into our new neighbourhood was the most difficult part. There were no other Islanders who spoke the same language as us."

Residents were encouraged to reach out to newcomers and celebrate the town's growing diversity during a public awareness session earlier this week at Stratford Town Hall.

The session was held to recognize the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

Tennekone, who is chairman of the town's diversity and inclusion sub-committee and a diversity consultant for the province's public service commission, noted that some discrimination experienced by immigrants is unintentional.

"When we have no exposure to diverse cultural backgrounds and multiculturalism, we don't learn," he said. "That's why it's very important for us to organize this type of event... When we have diversity and inclusiveness in our day-to-day life, people wouldn't feel discriminated against."

The session also showed videos from the Faith Project, an endeavour by the National Film Board in Canada in collaboration with the Canadian Race Relations Foundation.

The two videos showed a young Cree woman and Muslim man speaking about their religious practices and the barriers of incorporating spirituality into their everyday lives.

The P.E.I. Association for Newcomers to Canada also showed videos profiling some of its clients in the province.

Keyvan Ashenaei, who immigrated to P.E.I. in 2012, was the focus of one of the videos.

Ashenaei said he's seen much support from the Island community since immigrating from Kuwait in 2012.

He also spoke of his Baha'i faith and its celebration of diversity as being a cause of "love and harmony."

"As it is with music, where many different notes blend together in the making of a perfect poem," he said.

Ashenaei also endorsed the role of education in overcoming discrimination.

"We need to educate our children with morals," he said. "I'm not talking about any particular religion to be studied in school, I'm talking about the virtues which all of us as humans believe in: compassion; truthfulness; kindness; justice and mercy. All of these will drive us towards unity and a respect for diversity."

Tennekone said he overcame some of the social barriers by volunteering within church groups, community organizations and multicultural associations.

He encouraged others to also reach out to immigrants and said that often too much of the focus is on them to adapt to the mainstream culture.

"We have a role to provide them with positive feedback to help make sure they're smoothly integrating into our community," he said. "As a municipality, we need more practices, programs, support and information to ensure we're always committed to combatting racial discrimination and to build a community that values our cultural mosaic of diversity."