St. John's forums embrace newcomers from Syria to Joe Batt's Arm

What makes a new place feel like home? How can a newcomer become part of the patchwork of a community?

They're big questions Happy City St. John's hopes to answer with a series of forums in seven different St. John's neighbourhoods.

"When we say 'newcomers' we mean literally anybody who wasn't born and raised in St. John's. Could be from Syria, could be from Ontario, could be from Joe Batt's Arm," said Tyler Downey, the organization's events coordinator.

"The goal is to get people engaged in their neighbourhoods."

It's also a way to find out how to make newcomers feel like they belong.

Downey said regardless of their point of origin, people face many of the same obstacles when they arrive in a new community — like getting to know bus routes, garbage days, and even the folks in the house next door.  

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Earlier this month, there was a forum in Shea Heights. On Monday night, people gathered at the Rabbittown Community Centre. Five more are planned for Wedgewood Park, Kenmount Terrace, Cowan Heights, Georgestown and downtown St. John's.

Those wildly different neighbourhoods were chosen so Happy City could tap into the different needs of different areas, Downey said.

Broad terms are important

Like Downey, Jen Crowe, vice-chair of Happy City, says it's important to open up the forums to all newcomers, from near or far.

"We are hearing from people that, while there are some supports for refugees and immigrants who are coming here for the first time … there's not necessarily a lot of support here for people coming from outside of the province or the community," Crowe said.

Stephen Miller/CBC

She and Downey are focusing on making sure the needs of everyone in the neighbourhood are heard, so they can focus their combined community strengths on the issues that need help.

"We know that newcomers to the city and newcomers to the community are often the people who aren't able to voice their concerns and aren't able to voice their opinions," Crowe said. "Because they don't have the embedded networks that many of us [from the city] have."

Downey says newcomers have a different perspective from long-time residents and, since most people in a position to create change are from St. John's, it's crucial to have their perspective.

Downey hopes the forums will provide enough of these fresh perspectives to assemble a "tool kit" that community leaders can refer to in their efforts to improve neighbourhoods.

"We'll be able to ... say, 'OK, well here's the big issues that most people have and here are what we think we can do about it,'" he said.

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