When McGill student
Eva Vanek saw a need to support diversity in her community, she didn’t wait for someone else to do something about it. Instead, she rolled up her sleeves, assembled a crew of volunteers, took on a pile of paperwork, and led the effort herself.
Vanek is the president and founder of Community Outreach For Immigrants (COFI) McGill, a non-profit volunteer organization that links recent (and even not-so-recent) immigrants to Montreal with students at McGill University. Modeled on the federal HOST program (which runs under Citizenship and Immigration Canada), COFI seeks to empower people from diverse backgrounds and foster a positive experience of adaptation and settlement in Canada through social interaction and friendship.
Essentially, it’s a “buddy system” designed to help acquaint individuals with what the country has to offer.
The origins of Community Outreach For Immigrants
Diversity has long been a passion for Vanek. The 24- year-old’s travels have taken her across Canada and all over the world, from diving reefs in Thailand to remote rural villages in Costa Rica to English academies in the Czech Republic. Along the way, she has met hundreds of individuals from all sorts of backgrounds, securing her faith in the value of multiculturalism.
COFI originally emerged as a supplement to Vanek’s academic thesis. As the project gained momentum, however, it gained community partners and official recognition by the Student’s Society of McGill.
“We aim to bridge gaps between peoples of different backgrounds,” Vanek says, “and actively embrace the concept of diversity as a strength.”
The Diverse Perspectives of Immigrants Young and Old
Those accessing the services range in age from seven to 70. They have arrived in Montreal for a variety of reasons; some to be with family, some for freedom from different types of oppression, and many seeking better job opportunities. This last reason is the source of most of the frustration among COFI participants, Vanek says. She has met lawyers working as nannies and surgeons driving taxis, all struggling to make ends meet while trying to launch a career.
“Most have their own horror stories of barriers,” Vanek says. “This is so unfortunate, because I believe there are so many ways to actively address these issues.”
Together, the clients and volunteers participate in everything from massive potluck dinners to quiet cups of coffee. In linking young Canadians at the university with those striving to succeed in their new country, COFI delivers a message of hope — something sorely needed for anyone taking on a new endeavour.
“It seeks to break helplessness,” Vanek explains. “For example, if a person participating in the program comes home after a long day of defeat, a friendly, sincere volunteer can hopefully make some difference in finding strength. (We) provide a familiar person to contact through thick and thin, someone who can help combat the lows — the failed job interviews, the discrimination encountered, etc.”
It’s a simple solution, one which Vanek believes can work across the country.
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