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Calgarians celebrate long-lasting legacy of welcoming newcomers for World Refugee Day

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Calgarians are celebrating World Refugee Day and commemorating the city’s long-lasting legacy of welcoming newcomers who have been forced to flee their counties to escape conflict or persecution. 

The international day, designated every June 20 by the United Nations, shines a light on the rights, needs and dreams of those looking for a new lease on life.

On Thursday, the event coincided with the 30th anniversary of the Margaret Chisholm Resettlement Centre, established by the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society (CCIS).

Former CCIS CEO Fariborz Birjandian reflected on the facility, which he helped to build following his arrival to Calgary back in 1988 as an Iranian Baha'I refugee.

"We didn’t have a lot of resources back then, but I think we had ambition and dedication," he said.

"We felt that we needed to do our refugees a favour, because many of them come to this new country with fears. We wanted to eliminate those fears and build a unique place where they feel at home, and we managed to create that."

The building has since welcomed thousands upon thousands of Government-Assisted Refugees (GARs) to Calgary, and exceeded international standards to help integrate newcomers into Canadian life. 

"Canada is a country that is built by immigration, and refugees have been a huge part of that," Birjandian said. 

"Refugees have to be assured that this is going to be a community that will accept them. The only thing they have to do is do the right thing and be a good citizen to be part of this great country."

That’s the goal for the newly-arrived 352 privately-sponsored refugees who touched down in Calgary earlier this week.

They were greeted by several of their family members in what turned out to be emotional reunions several years in the making, along with a blessing from Piikani Elder Herman Many Guns.

Hundreds of privately-sponsored refugees touched down in Calgary this week.CCIS director of settlement and reintegration services Bindu Narula says the act of making refugees feel welcome is more important than ever.

"I think what's really important to understand about refugees is that they're just like anybody else," Narula said.

"It's just the circumstances that they've had to go through, and having to change what situation they're in. The truth is, that there's good people and there's bad people just like everybody else, and we just have to be sensitive to the situation, because having a home and safe place to live is something that is a human right."

Canada has welcomed 1,088,015 refugees since 1980, according to the latest statistics available from the United Nations refugee agency.

Many of those efforts have been supported by several humanitarian organizations including the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CENWA).

Director of the Ottawa-based organization, Dr. Adriana Bara, says the remarkable generosity and compassion of Canadians supporting refugees worldwide is evident, along with the resilience of others during times of division and economic challenges.

"it's very important that nobody loses hope, because there is always a way of helping others who are in desperate situation. They maybe don't see it immediately, but there are people who are eager to help," Bara said. 

Centre for Newcomers welcoming thousands of refugees

More than 120 million people have been displaced globally around the world, a number that has more than doubled over the past ten years and increased by 10 million since last year.

Calgary’s Centre For Newcomers (CFN) welcomed 50,000 clients alone last year, almost 20 per cent of which were refugees.

Chief program officer Kelly Ernst says the centre is seeing about double the amount of people from the year prior, with many choosing Calgary because of its affordability, but also its inclusiveness.

"There’s really a diverse community of different ethnicities that people can immediately connect with, and that's attracting people to the city," Ernst said.

"It's also doing well economically, so people are coming here because they know that after a short time, they can probably get a job that will sustain them – and there's a lot of people that don't necessarily like what they see when they arrive into bigger centers, and they want something a little bit smaller as well."

Solome Asfaw was once a newcomer.

She arrived to Canada in 2010 from Ethiopia with her two young boys, and has since made Calgary her home.

She works as a childcare specialist at CFN and says she loves inspiring the next generation of children to follow their dreams.

Her two sons, Ebenezer and Gideon Bedada, have since achieved incredible success receiving full athletic scholarships to playing NCAA-division 1 football in the United States.

"They opportunity is sitting there once you look for it, you're going to get there and you can succeed," Asfaw said.

"I have the opportunities, like my children do, and I'm so very glad that Canada opened their arms for us."

Meanwhile, other workers at CFN, like Shahram Ersali, have used their talents to give back to refugees in need.

He was an Iranian refugee himself, but has since been teaching English as a second language for the past 21 years.

"Language is connection with your community and connecting with the real Canadian community is so important," he said.

"I learned this from my own teachers, so I thought that’s what I can give back to others who want to achieve their own career goals."

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