Fort McMurray's welcome centre helping newcomers through pandemic challenges

·3 min read
The Welcome Centre used to operate a physical location at the library at MacDonald Island Park.  (Fort McMurray Tourism  - image credit)
The Welcome Centre used to operate a physical location at the library at MacDonald Island Park. (Fort McMurray Tourism - image credit)

Fort McMurray's Welcome Centre that helps connect newcomers to non-profits has been helping fewer people during the pandemic, since the organization has operated virtually without the accessibility of a physical location.

The Welcome Centre was previously operating out of the Wood Buffalo Regional Library at MacDonald Island Park.

Alexandra Tarasenco, volunteer coordinator for the Welcome Centre, said the physical location has been closed since the beginning of the pandemic. That's affected the of the number of people using their services, because the location at MacDonald Island Park saw heavy foot traffic.

Now, they're relying more on Facebook, email and phone calls.

"With the newcomers… not everyone is on Facebook, not everyone is connected through social media," said Tarasenco. "It is a challenge."

The Welcome Centre connects newcomers with organizations in the community that can help them settle in, whether that's help finding a job, training, finding housing or transportation.

Tarasenco said she just wants to make sure people know the Welcome Centre is still operating.

During the pandemic, Tarasenco said most of the time people are reaching out to her for employment.

Edmund Obike, a refugee from Nigeria, came to Fort McMurray in 2019. He spent three months unable to find work, and living in a shelter. He was about to move away, when he was introduced to Tarasenco.

"I even bought my ticket, book my flight to move down to Toronto, but she [Tarasenco] encouraged me to stay," said Obike.

"It was very difficult for me," said Obike.

He said he found it difficult to get work, because many of the oil jobs require tickets and specific training.

Tarasenco helped Obike find a job and even helped with things like paying for bus tickets.

"I wouldn't have gotten the job, I wouldn't have even gotten assistance for transportation, my movement; it really helped," said Obike.

Fort McMurray Tourism
Fort McMurray Tourism

Glenda Little-Kulai, program chair for the Language Instruction for Newcomers of Canada, which is part of the steering committee for the Welcome Centre, said it's been difficult for newcomers to connect with the centre without a physical location.

"That creates a barrier, especially for newcomers that might have low digital literacy or low language skills, because they're not able to access," said Little-Kulai.

She said the centre was able to help out greatly during the flood in April 2020, with spreading information about health and safety in nine languages.

"Hopefully we'll be able to provide in-person services again, but for now just sharing the word that we have a welcome center for newcomers… that we are offering virtual services" said Little-Kulai.

Therese Greenwood, executive director of the Multicultural Association of Wood Buffalo who is also on the steering committee, said the association is trying to find "a solution to these COVID challenges that's going to let us return to an in-person model in the near future."

Greenwood said she expects to have an announcement about the Welcome Centre in the near future, but declined to give further details.

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