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Waitlist for English language classes in Calgary shoots up to 7,455 people

Not being able to communicate in English 'sets people back' in terms of integration.

This is Part 3 of Unsettling, a series on immigration by CBC Calgary.

It's mid-afternoon on a Friday at the Calgary International Airport and Jon Yee is checking the arrivals listing; he sees a flight has arrived from Germany and heads to the gate.

We're going to a flight that is arriving from Frankfurt to see if there are newcomers arriving, he said.

Usually there's at least one.

They don't know who might get off the flight, but Wali Mohammad Dawari, who is working alongside Yee, says they know what they are looking for.

We can recognize them [newcomers] when they start asking questions, he said.

A family of five from Cameroon, in Central Africa, walks through the arrivals gate.

Dawari approaches and hands the man a pamphlet from his organization.

They will guide you. They will give information where and how to get a house, he said.

The Cameroonian man says he has an Airbnb booked for his family.

Also, he has a friend in the city who has promised to help him find work in IT.

Dawari encourages him to connect with agencies like the Centre for Newcomers and Immigrant Services Calgary in a few days.

With the job search, we will help you, [and] with finding a school for your kids, he said.

Yee and Dawari work at the Immigrant Arrival Centre, a service that local immigrant-serving organizations started in October 2022 to help newly arrived Ukrainians fleeing war.

While they have a kiosk at the airport, they've found that scouting the area for newcomers and approaching them is a far more successful strategy than hoping arrivals will come to them.

Surprisingly, only a third of newcomers reach out to immigrant agencies in Calgary.

Yee, Dawari and their team members are trying to change that by stepping up — they approach newcomers the moment they first set foot in Alberta, hoping to make the transition easier.

They say they've connected with over 4,000 newcomers at the airport over the past 14 months.

Long waitlists lead to uncertainty

When it comes to integration, one service lacking is English language classes.

Waitlists for what are called LINC classes (Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada) have ballooned to 7,455 people, up from 6,300 November.

For context, in April 2022, there were about 500 people on the waitlist.

Nawal Al-Busaidi, who is the CEO of the agency, said people can wait months before receiving an assessment for a class, then up to a year to actually get into one.

She says not being able to speak the language can be devastating for newcomers hoping to integrate.

"It actually sets people back years behind in terms of their settlement journey," she said, adding that being unable to communicate in English also delays their job hunt, which in turn affects their mental health.

According to Al-Busaidi, the demand for LINC classes spiked once Ukrainians fleeing war arrived in the city.

Jenya Pyliai arrived in Calgary from Ukraine five months ago and has been waiting to attend LINC classes ever since.

Federal funding didn't keep pace with the rising numbers, making things trickier for those hoping to improve their language skills.

"They did not add additional assessment centres to address the influx of the need," Al-Busaidi said.

"We're still operating with the same resources we had in 2022-2023, but with a higher arrival of newcomer that were not budgeted for."

Jenya Pyliai, a newcomer from Ukraine who arrived in Calgary last year, has been waiting to attend LINC classes for the past five months.

She tried to find work for two months, hoping to land a role in the field she knows best — property management.

Since then, Pyliai has realized she'll never land any job, least of all her "dream job," until she improves her English skills.

"I do everything for improve my English because it's very important in Canada," she said.

In fall 2023, Calgary's Centre for Newcomers offered a weekly, informal class at the Village Square Leisure Centre called "Coffee and Conversations" in a bid to address the intense demand for English classes.

Classes are resuming on Jan. 26, this time at the Centre for Newcomers in Calgary.

In 2023, Calgary's Centre for Newcomers offered a weekly, informal class at the Village Square Leisure Centre called 'Coffee and Conversations' to address the intense demand for English classes. (Carla Turner/CBC)

Maliha Karimi, a newcomer from Afghanistan, is also keen on improving her English.

Karimi landed in Canada a year and a half ago and found herself waiting for a spot in a LINC class for four months.

She calls those months "a waste of time" and says, "I couldn't get into society."

Karimi knows she needs to polish her English language skills to stay afloat.

"I need to go to school for my children and talk with teachers and join their meetings," she said, adding, "I had to go to buy some material for house and meet people [and] speak with landlord."

According to Karimi, her first few months in Calgary were disorienting and depressing because she couldn't communicate in English.

Don't coil into yourself

Dapo Bankole remembers the challenges of his first few years in Calgary, when he struggled to fit in and find work, after moving from Nigeria in 2012.

He owns an IT company now, and shares his experiences in Calgary through a digital project called Immigrant Life Podcast.

With hindsight, Bankole has realized that immigration was the easy part of his journey — integration "is the big deal" and much tougher to handle.

Dapo Bankole, pictured in this photo from 2012 with his family at the Calgary airport, remembers the challenges of his first few years in Calgary, when he struggled to belong and find work, after moving from Nigeria. (Submitted by Dapo Bankole)

Bankole calls the process a two-way street.

According to him, Calgarians need to be challenged on confronting racism that Bankole describes as "covert or diplomatic racism."

However, immigrants also need to do the work if they want to fit in.

Bankole says newcomers need to resist the urge to "coil into themselves."

"If your aim to was to live amongst people that exactly look like you, talk like you, you know, act like you, believe like you, then you should have stayed where you're coming from," he said.

"Step out of your comfort zone. Integrate more."

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