Learning, Connecting, and a Dose of Fun: Support for Newcomer Women

The dedication is palpable from the moment you step onto the premises, where strollers stand parked in a corner and an assortment of children’s books lie stacked on a coffee table. Elsewhere, messages of love and empowerment are pasted over the walls, instilling a sense of hope and purpose in their space, while sounds of happy children drift in from an adjacent room. For the hundreds of women who come through these doors, this is a place of community and support—a place where they feel like they belong.

Known as the Newcomer Women’s Services (NEW), this organization offers settlement support to newcomer women from all around the world, and has been doing so for over thirty years since its founding in 1983 by a group of Latin American refugee women.

Located in the heart of the Danforth, NEW runs a host of free programs and services, including an on-site childcare, provided for children between nineteen months and six years of age, while their mothers attend the centre. “The fact that we provide childcare here allows them to take their mind off their children for a while,” says Urooj Shahzadi, a program coordinator at NEW.

A big part of NEW’s approach to helping newcomer women is centered on supporting learning and development. An English Language Program (ELP) is one such example, offering six levels of instruction and classes every weekday, including one class for women aged fifty-five and over. Here, students learn everything from reading and writing to Canadian history, geography, politics, and culture.

But there’s far more that goes on in these classes. Guest speakers are invited to talk about settlement issues such as workers’ rights, tenant rights, and how to find a family doctor. There are also workshops on a variety of topics including assertiveness, taxes, housing, health awareness, and parenting skills. “In our English classes our goal is to not only teach them English, but also to connect them to resources and information that are available,” explains NEW’s communications coordinator, Stephanie Zeng.

Employment counsellors also visit these classes to teach students how to apply for jobs online and write their own resume. There’s even certification training in food handling and first aid CPR. “What we try to do is put the employment component into the English learning journey, that way the moment they graduate they are already prepared to work.”

NEW also places importance on creating social opportunities for newcomer women. In a popular networking program held every Saturday, for instance, it facilitates mingling sessions and a variety of collaborative activities, with something different planned almost every week. Activities can range from arts and crafts, to yoga, Zumba, dancing, and storytelling.

“We try to help them to foster a community within themselves,” says Urooj. “A lot of these women have either just come here or have no connections and are isolated or alienated. These spaces become very important because they may be the only spaces they get to talk to other people.”

Members are allowed to be involved in the development and design of such networking programs as a way to get them more engaged. “When we create a program or activity, we ask our members what they think they’ll enjoy the most and do our best to make that happen for them. A lot of the ideas we get are from our members,” says Stephanie. “One time some of the women mentioned they wanted a karaoke session to sing their traditional songs, so we did it.”

Field trips, too, are part of the fun here at NEW to expose newcomer women to different parts of Toronto and teach them to navigate the city. “We take the strollers and the kids, and we take the TTC. It’s a whirlwind but it’s fun,” says Urooj, laughing. Places members have visited include the Toronto Botanical Gardens, Allan Gardens, High Park, and Ontario’s Parliament Building. “It’s kind of cool because all the moms take care of each other’s kids as well, so there’s a true sense of community, support, and collectivity.”

NEW also runs special workshops on mindfulness, meditation, and stress management to promote positive mental health. “The stress faced by a lot of these women is real,” says Urooj, “and we should be able to create spaces to support them, because at the end of the day they are amazing, brilliant women.”

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