Sevan Zokian, Arab Community Centre of Toronto, who presented at a recent PRSN Lunch & Learn event reminded attendees that cultural awareness and understanding goes both ways between newcomers and the sponsor team. Recognizing the need around cultural sensitivity creates trust, avoids misunderstanding and allows groups to build strong relationships, but it takes work.
She stressed the importance of:
- Listening deeply. With language barriers, speak clearly and avoid slang.
- Avoiding stereotypes and generalizations. Don’t make assumptions about newcomers’ beliefs or practices. For example, don’t make assumptions about religious adherence, first language or dietary habits based on the newcomer’s country of origin.
- Celebrating diversity through activities and events, both Canadian celebrations as well as those familiar to the newcomers.
- Being sensitive to the trauma faced by refugees due to war or persecution; newcomers may not want to discuss historical trauma or personal experiences but sponsors need to recognize the effects on them.
- Recognizing non-verbal cues. Misunderstandings arise if both sides do not recognize the meaning of body language, facial expressions and physical contact. Learn as much as you can about the culture of the people you are sponsoring in advance of their arrival.
- Communicating well and demonstrating patience are the best tools for success.
In the break-out groups, sponsors shared specific examples of challenges around cultural issues. These included time management and being on time, the roles of men and women, parenting practices, employment goals and many more. Encouraging frequent, open discussion may help, in which both newcomers and sponsors share their experiences leading to greater understanding of each other’s cultural practices and expectations.