Three years after their arrival, Saint John's first family from Kyrgyzstan has helped other Kyrgyz newcomers settle in New Brunswick and believe smaller cities are the best introduction to Canadian life.
Nazira Tolobek, her husband Akberdi Itibaev and their two daughters Sumaiia and Liliia Beishenbaev, arrived in Canada as part of New Brunswick's Provincial Nominee Program, which recruits qualified people from around the world to live and work in the province.
"It was difficult in the beginning to feel comfortable because we were the only family, and the other family came only last year," Tolobek said.
But she and Akberdi found community and belonging in the Russian-speaking communities in New Brunswick. These connections played a role in helping them build their lives in Canada.
The couple hail from Kyrgyzstan, a small mountainous Central Asian country and part of the former Soviet Union, bordered by China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Kyrgyz and Russian are the country's official languages.
"Everyone from previous Soviet Union countries, we all speak Russian," Tolobek said. "So we just help each other when someone arrives. You can come in and you can get the support."
After three years living and working in Saint John, they have now become this support and community themselves — for other Kyrgyz families arriving in the province. There are four families in Saint John.
Making others feel welcome
"We met them before we left and we were connected online," Tolobek said. "We met once in our country. Then, when they arrived we met them, and we talked about what we knew.
"Sometimes when we have traditional holidays, we meet each other, invite them to our house, and prepare traditional food."
Tolobek, who works for J.D. Irving Ltd., is happy the family wound up in Saint John.
"Saint John was a great place to start," she said. "Housing and living expenses are lower than big cities here. Competition is lower to find a job. We have so many nice people in Atlantic Canada."
And recently, the family started showing more Saint Johners something of Kyrgyz culture, taking part in Asian Heritage Month celebrations.
A highlight of the opening last weekend was a dance performance by Tolobek and Itibaev's daughters, 10-year-old Sumaiia and six-year-old Liliia.
A girls' dance
The girls were the first representatives from Kyrgyzstan to take part in the celebrations, which began 14 years ago.
"I liked seeing all the happy faces," Sumaiia, said after her performance. "I haven't been on a stage, but yesterday there was a rehearsal and I got over my fears."
Tolebka was glad the girls could share the dance with others.
"There's different movements, which show what girls do in their lives, In this dance, our ancestors were sharing what they do every day."
"This opportunity gives us [the chance to] teach our kids a little bit more about our country and our culture and this dance."