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South Sudanese mom amongst multiple beneficiaries of SOICS' Kia-funded 'Moving Forward' program

There are a lot of lousy places on planet Earth. And one of the lousiest is South Sudan.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/GordGoble</who> South Sudanese mom Ajah Alier Aguto is now in Canada

If the critical food shortages don’t get you, the ever-increasing temperatures, long droughts and sudden floods, all spurred by climate change, might.

Make it through all that and you're up against non-stop conflict. In South Sudan, there's ethnic violence, violence against civilians, and violence and sexual violence against women and girls.

The threats are everywhere.

Forty two-year-old Ajah Alier Aguto knows South Sudan all too well. She was born there and managed to survive until her mid-20s before finally fleeing the madness for neighbouring Kenya.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/GordGoble</who> Ajah Alier Aguto

There she stayed as a refugee for 17 years, raising a family of seven kids along the way, until the United Nations came a-knocking to advise it might be wise to relocate elsewhere.

They figured Canada would be safer for Ajah and her brood. So she took the advice and arrived on our soil on Remembrance Day, Nov. 11, 2021, eventually settling in Summerland.

"I came to Canada because our country has long fighting," said Ajah in her best English recently at the offices of Penticton-based South Okanagan Immigrant and Community Services (SOICS).

SOICS has been there for Ajah and her eight-member family since she arrived, and the organization continues to be there for her, helping her become acclimatized to her new world.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/GordGoble</who> Ajah Alier Aguto and youngest son

On this particular day she was taking English lessons while her youngest son, Alier Ayuen Mach, happily engaged in a supervised session in the SOICS playroom. On other days, she'll take SOICS-arranged driving lessons, so necessary for a soon-to-be-working single mom in the wide open spaces of the South Okanagan.

"I needed my children to be safe, that's why I came to Canada," she said. "Because Canada is a good place. It's a safe place. I choose to be a Canadian.

"And my children like Canada because now they are in day school and learning more about it. There was 200 children in one class in Kenya. Now here they are free to go to school. They know more English now than me."

Maybe, maybe not. Ajah, whose native language is "Dinka," has actually become more proficient at English than she thinks. And she uses that proficiency to tell us what driving a vehicle and gaining an even better command of the language will mean to her.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/GordGoble</who>

"Once I'm able to drive," she said, "I will be able to take my children to day school. I can go shopping and to appointments. I can look for a job and get a job and drive myself to work.

"Once I know English enough, I hope to be a nurse. But right now I would do anything. Anything. I want to be working."

Elmira Galiyeva, SOICS' local immigration partnership coordinator, knows all too well the hardships Ajah and others like her face when immigrating to Canada and specifically to the South Okanagan where distances between destinations can be immense and public transportation is lacking.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/GordGoble</who> Elmira Galiyeva (left) and Mario Avendano of SOICS

That's why she's a big believer in a program SOICS launched earlier this year called "Moving Forward" that helps immigrants (refugees, displaced individuals, temporary workers, permanent residents and more) overcome some of the toughest barriers they face.

Immediate, critical barriers like transportation and language.

The problem though is that the program needs bucks to continue into the future. It had bucks this year, being generously financed since May by Kia Canada's national "Kia Communities in Motion" initiative, but that funding is an unknown after March, 2023.

In fact, Galiyeva maintains Moving Forward deserves an even bigger pot going forward, believing a fully backed program would benefit not only immigrants but the communities they’re coming to, most of which are crying out for dedicated, enthusiastic workers they're simply not finding on the home-brewed front.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/GordGoble</who> English classes at SOICS

"With this Kia-funded project," she said, "we were able to help newcomers get connected, get moving. Transportation is often the biggest obstacle to finding jobs and getting to those jobs. And with Moving Forward we purchased bicycles, helmets and locks and we did a bicycle road safety program.

"And we did driving lessons. Newcomers can't afford lessons. They're expensive. So through the program we help them get their licenses. And once they have their licenses, they can move about freely and help themselves better."

According to Galiyeva, the program helps solve a myriad of issues. Issues like housing access.

"For example in Keremeos," she said, "the Lower Similkameen Community Resource Society built new housing. They have several units that are intended for families, but they can’t get people in because of the transportation."

Issues like remote jobs and remote workers.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/GordGoble</who>

"If I find a job in, say, Naramata," said Galiyeva, "but I live in Penticton, I'm not going to take it if I don't have transportation. There's just one bus running."

Issues like day-to-day living.

"Through the program," she said, "we're connecting Oliver, Osoyoos, Summerland and Naramata to Penticton so they can access services like banks, hospitals, schools and more."

And issues like labour shortages and excessive job vacancies -- conditions currently plaguing Penticton and the South Okanagan.

"We know how our businesses are suffering," she said. "They need to fill positions. And this program is helping businesses get employees through mobility. Close to two-thirds of recent immigrants are of core working age."

Sitting next to Galiyeva during our chat was SOICS' settlement worker Mario Avendano, who added that even the mere acquisition of a driver's license can be a powerful statement.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/GordGoble</who>

"It's amazing," he said. "With a driver's license, which is an official document, you feel like you're becoming a part of the community. It makes you feel like you belong."

Just as importantly, he said, the program meant English was taught not only at the SOICS classrooms, but remotely too.

"It gave us English teachers in the field, at the workplace," he smiled. "We had a teacher teaching English in a different community than Penticton."

Into the future, Galiyeva hopes Moving Forward will also allow SOICS to establish a mobile presence.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/GordGoble</who>

"One of our dreams is to have a large van or RV that we could use to provide mobile settlement services to all the newcomers in the region," she said. "This would have a tremendously positive impact on the settlement process of newcomers in remote areas.”

Both Galiyeva and Avendano hope the local and regional business community is listening to their story.

"Kia has been wonderful with the program," said Avendano. "But the grant closes in March and we're not sure beyond that, and we need to look for more money because we have more demand than supply.

"So we're hoping that with Kia's example, other businesses will say, 'Hey, we should do that as well.'"

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/GordGoble</who>

To find out more about SOICS and its Moving Forward program, or to enquire about contributing to it, check out the SOICS website here, call 250-492-6299 and ask for Elmira Galiyeva or Mario Avendano, or email Galiyeva directly at [email protected] or Avendano directly at [email protected].

"Kia's motto is 'Movement that Inspires,'" said Guliyeva, "and we hope that Kia Canada’s initiative to support innovative projects that promote inclusivity and movement will inspire other businesses to do the same."



Send your comments, news tips, typos, letter to the editor, photos and videos to [email protected].




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