Riley Park: Life-changing connections

Ernesto Ramos is seated in the middle of a room playing his accordion while his daughter Marta dances next to him.

Mankin Ladd's mother is belting out the Canadian national anthem on a harmonica in front of the same crowd. Then there's Angela Chou, tears streaming down her face. "I've been through a lot of difficult times," she says. "It's my hope that everybody could spread out our love, spread out our care to the people around you and to the society and to the world."

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Chou and the others are newcomers to Canada.

And while they share a common story of immigration, there is one place that has brought them together to learn more about their new community, work through life problems and meet new friends. That place is Little Mountain Neighbourhood House on Main Street, near 23rd Avenue, where the newcomers' stories were captured on film by another new immigrant, Ana Mateescu.

Mateescu is an accomplished filmmaker from Romania who produced the 16-minute documentary We Art Community that features the neighbourhood house's Volunteer Connections program. It's a program where newcomers make jewelry, share stories and cultural traditions of their home countries in a setting that brings laughter and tears - two emotions Mateescu experienced herself as she made the film. "It was amazing for me to do this - to find out their stories were also my story," said Mateescu in an interview at the neighbourhood house.

Mateescu, her husband Sorin and seven-year-old daughter Erin arrived from Romania in 2009. The couple left good jobs in radio and television, where Mateescu produced documentaries in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan, to secure a more promising future for their daughter.

They had no friends or connections in Vancouver and Mateescu's English was poor. She began volunteering in the Downtown Eastside at the Union Gospel Mission and earned income as a cleaner while upgrading her filmmaking skills at Langara College. Then one day she attended a party where she met a staff member from the neighbourhood house, who invited her to the Connections program.

That's when she brought out her camera and is now on contract with the neighbourhood house to produce more documentaries about the immigration experience.

Mateescu is also close to finishing a community development course at Capilano University - which the neighbourhood house paid for - and is producing other documentaries for various non-profit societies.

An admitted adrenaline junkie who, in her war reporting days, was more interested in the story than the people, Mateescu said her experience at the neighbourhood house has "changed my life" - a phrase she used three times during her interview with the Courier.

"I realized how important it was to care about the people in front of you," she said while her daughter used a smartphone to record the interview on video.

Mateescu's story is one of many Joel Bronstein has heard as executive director of the neighbourhood house, which is celebrating its 35th anniversary. But, as he explained, the agency offers more than people might think as they walk by the cramped, two-level building wedged between a restaurant and an optical store.

"People are quite surprised to find out the depth and breadth of what we do," he said, noting the neighbourhood house will eventually get a bigger home as part of the massive Little Mountain redevelopment next to Queen Elizabeth Park.

The non-profit has 70 full and part-time staff equipped with skills that include teaching, nursing, childcare, social work, psychology and ESL training. Settlement workers, youth workers, cooks and family counselors also operate out of the neighbourhood house.

The staff's work extends to monitoring more than 70 childcare spaces and overseeing programs run out of nearby elementary schools, churches and Sir Charles Tupper secondary school, where volunteers work with Tupper students in a homework/mentoring program.

A regular community meal, a coffee house night where people come to recite poetry and play instruments are other features of the neighbourhood house. Seniors performing tai-chi and playing mahjong is a common sight.

"It's welcoming and friendly here," Bronstein said. "We try to break down a lot of those barriers that might scare those people away who haven't had good experiences in another country in dealing with bureaucracies."

One day back in 1996, Andrew Tang walked into the neighbourhood house to get some help with his taxes. Having arrived from Vietnam a year earlier, and with limited English, he not only found help but work as a volunteer.

Proficient with numbers, Tang has returned to the neighbourhood house for the past 15 years during tax season to help newcomers with their taxes. Tang speaks Cantonese, Mandarin, Vietnamese and French.

"It's very important to help each other," said Tang, an information technology specialist at Vancity credit union. His English is now quite good and he has come a long way from working in a factory and fast food restaurant since he arrived in Vancouver. "When I help people, I also help myself because I can hear lots of stories about new immigrants to Canada and that helps me to develop a strong understanding of the community."

Added Tang: "My advice to all newcomers to Canada is to try and get involved. When you are involved, you feel you're part of the country - and that it's your country, too."

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