Preparing Refugees and Migrants for a New Life in Canada

In 2016, the Canadian Orientation Abroad (COA) program celebrates an important milestone – having provided pre-arrival settlement support to 200,000 Canada-bound refugees and immigrants.

It is 7:30am and already a group of 23 refugees patiently waits in the COA training room at the International Organization for Migration  (IOM) mission in Nairobi, Kenya. 

Today is their first day of a three-day orientation session.  

Funded by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada since 1998, the COA program helps selected refugees and immigrants prepare for their new life in Canada by providing relevant, accurate, consistent and timely information needed to make informed settlement decisions.

The program operates 20 permanent training sites overseas, with activities in over 35 countries every year. Refugees represent approximately 45% of all the clients trained worldwide. In Kenya alone, COA provided orientation to over 1,500 refugees last year.

Amongst the participants for this session is Rocky Ndaye, a 20-year old university student with a ready smile and a positive attitude. Rocky arrives in the training room with his mother, father and four-year old sister. The family fled the Democratic Republic of Congo about 14 years ago and they have been living in Kenya ever since. 

In the training room, every participant is greeted by the COA facilitator and provided with a copy of the COA Handbook Glimpses of Canada, as well as the COA Refugee Participant Workbook. All printed resources have been translated into local languages, and display a large amount of pictures and activities in order to ease learning; especially for those with low literacy levels. 

A PhD graduate in International Migration Studies, Patricia Njuki has been a refugee facilitator with the COA program since 2013. She begins the session with simple questions that hold much meaning to all in the room: 

“How are you feeling about Canada? What excites you most about this big change in your life?”

Rocky is the first to answer: “I am very happy to go to Canada”, he declares without hesitance. “I am excited to finish my university degree there”.

“Are you afraid?” the facilitator enquires.

“I am afraid it is going to be too cold for me in Canada,” he giggles. 

The other participants burst into laughter, and Patricia grins. “Well, we are going to ensure you are prepared for the cold and show you all the wonderful things you can do in winter as well!,” she adds.

Participants often arrive to the COA session with pre-conceived notions about Canada. Some believe they will be provided with many expensive goods as soon as they arrive, while others fear they will not be able to afford basic needs such as school or rent. A few participants heard one cannot go outside in the winter without risking serious frostbite. Whether grave or trivial, pre-conceptions can adversally play into migrants’ preparation and mindset.

Providing a realistic portrait of resettlement programs and support available to refugees selected for resettlement to Canada is critically important. When this information comes prior to arrival, refugees’ anxieties and fears are decreased significantly.  

According to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, “pre-arrival services are expected to facilitate faster and more efficient economic and social integration of newcomers to Canada by effectively addressing needs earlier in the integration continuum and improving linkages between pre-arrival and domestic (in-Canada) services.”

Louise Bélanger, COA Global Program Manager, adds: “Our goal is to equip and empower the participants with the information that they need to make informed decisions. We guide them towards the services and organizations that are there to help, and encourage them to take a certain number of actions in order to successfully navigate the initial settlement process”.

Rocky Ndaye reading the COA Refugee Participant Workbook in Nairobi, Kenya.

Empowering newcomers with information prior to arrival

The topics covered during the three-day session include: pre-arrival preparation, arrival procedures, first days, first two weeks, government support, settlement support, language classes, cultural adaptation, rights, freedoms, responsibilities and obligations, housing, health, education, employment, budgeting, taxes and transportation.

Through interactive activities and group discussions, participants learn about Canada’s history, geography, society, culture, laws, norms and values.

In addition to attending the COA Refugee session provided to adult participants, youth  such as Rocky receive tailored orientation briefings focused on school, friendships, health and wellness, part-time work, and other topics such as culture shock and bullying.

Some of the concepts explored during the session – multiculturalism, discrimination, and culture shock – are foreign to the refugee participants.  The facilitator uses various activities to fix important messages.

“Write your name with your right hand”,  she Patricia requests the group.

“Now write your name with your left hand.  What is the difference?  How does it feel?”.

The answers comes rapidly.

“It’s difficult! It takes longer and, in the end, it does not look nice,” testifies one participant.

“Why do it with the other hand if you can do it with your usual hand?,” asks Rocky.

“Writing with your ‘other’ hand is like moving to another country. Some of the things you do every day may seem very complicated in your first few weeks in Canada.”

Stress, frustration, isolation and depression are widespread feelings amongst newly arrived immigrants.

“Remember that you are not alone in Canada. Many organizations are there to help you, as long as you reach out to them when you arrive.”


The Ndaye family, from left to right: Kamonga Ndaye Dieu-Donné, Bachuza-Banga Nene, Blessing Ndaye and Rocky Ndaye.

COA serving its 200,000th participant|

As the three-day session draws to a close, Patricia pauses to make an announcement:

“Today is a special day for the Canadian Orientation Abroad program because, in this session, is our 200,000th participant”.

“Rocky, could you please come to the front?,” she asks.

As Rocky comes forward, Patricia presents him with a plaque engraved with an image of an inukshuk. 

“Inukshuks are monuments used by the Inuit for communication and survival. The traditional meaning of the inukshuk is "Someone was here" or "You are on the right path". On behalf of IOM and the Government of Canada, I wish you the best of luck with your new life in Canada.” 

As Rocky and his family leave the IOM premise to further prepare for their upcoming move to Canada, IOM and the COA team celebrate 18 years of continued service to refugees and immigrants preparing for a new life in Canada.

To learn more about Canadian Orientation Abroad, visit their website.