Impact Stories

Here. For each other. Mary & Friba’s Story.

Hi Neighbour welcomes newcomers.

Mary and Friba’s chance meeting last summer at a barbecue celebrating the harvest from a local community garden sparked connections and community far beyond their Burnaby neighbourhood. While the pair is from opposite sides of the world – Guadalajara, Mexico and Kabul, Afghanistan – they have a lot in common – they are teachers, event planners, and volunteers. Both also arrived in Canada with their families almost a decade ago settling in Edmonds, a richly diverse urban community of about 60,000 where over half (54%) of residents are immigrant and newcomer. But although Mary and Friba are natural leaders and doers, they found integrating into their new community difficult.

“I was feeling invisible,” Mary says of her new home.

“At the beginning when newcomers come to Canada, they are facing lots of challenges, especially no friends,” Friba says speaking from personal experience. Language, meaningful employment, and navigating support systems are among the other barriers encountered. While Edmonds has several service providers (including a local Neighbourhood House) offering programs and resources for community members, many newcomers feel isolated and lonely.

Mary agrees: “I was needing and missing other people.”

The impact of loneliness

In Fall 2021, more than 1 in 10 Canadians aged 15 and older said that they always or often felt lonely. Without social connections and support, one’s health and overall well-being can suffer.

Indeed, close to half (49%) of those who said that they always or often felt lonely reported that their mental health was either fair or poor.1 The COVID-19 pandemic heightened these feelings of disconnection. New Canadians are more likely than Canadian-born individuals to be worried about maintaining social ties – 44% vs. 30%.2 The pandemic has also disproportionally impacted newcomer and immigrant women and girls due to job loss, increased family childcare, and caregiving needs.

Enter United Way’s Hi Neighbour Initiative, which empowers a community’s residents like Mary and Friba to create the neighbourhoods they want to live, work, and play in. Four years ago, recognizing the need to tackle social isolation on a local level, United Way British Columbia – working with communities in BC’s Interior, Lower Mainland, Central & Northern Vancouver Island (United Way BC) began the Hi Neighbour Initiative embedding community engagement teams in neighbourhoods across the Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley.

“Through Hi Neighbour we support newcomers to create initiatives and build connections that are meaningful to themselves and their community,” says Emily Wimbles, Manager, Community Engagement, Community Impact and Investment at United Way BC. “We work alongside residents to develop community leadership and to break down the very barriers newcomers are facing that contribute to social isolation.”

Community builders and champions

The Hi Neighbour initiative employs local residents to help build safer, healthier, more inclusive, and resilient communities. Those with strong social networks and a deep knowledge of their community like Mary are the backbone of any neighbourhood and are hired by United Way BC to serve as Community Builders. “I discovered that the best way for me to get involved in my community was to love and to serve. So, I started to organize community projects because it was the way for me to have the feeling that I was belonging in Canada,” Mary says.

As a Community Builder, Mary quickly identifies Edmond residents who need help through community events, Facebook groups, or something as simple as visiting a café or attending a barbeque. She then assesses their evolving needs and connects them with appropriate programs and services. Most importantly, Mary works to find and support Community Champions like Friba (there were almost 2,000 in neighbourhoods across the region in 2021) with Local Love microgrants that support resident-led initiatives and projects promoting leadership, connection, and provide a seamless path for community participation.

In late Summer and Fall 2021, refugees escaping the war in Afghanistan began arriving in BC. Friba and members of the local Afghani community were looking for ways to reach out to newcomers who were facing the challenges of a new country. They were struggling with how to identify, reach out, and support them.

“Friba explained to me she was from Afghanistan, and she had many ideas, and, in that moment, we did Local Love fund application on my cell phone for tea parties for the women from Afghanistan,” Mary says.

Welcoming and including newcomers

Securing a $1,000 Local Love grant allowed Friba and her peers to create a safe space for the recently-arrived to get together, and a series of newcomers’ welcome teas was born. The gathering supported immigrant women not only from Afghanistan and the Middle East, but also the Philippines, Ecuador, and Mexico.

Thanks to United Way donors, over 13,000 Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley residents were connected to their 12 Hi Neighbour communities through 164 Local Love-funded projects like the afternoon teas and other events and projects in 2021. This support has a ripple effect.

The initial afternoon tea gatherings have grown into ongoing Edmonds community events focused on bringing women together including International Women’s Day celebrations, Mother’s Day, and a multicultural fashion show. It has also inspired community members to revitalize an important local social enterprise and start an African Canadian Seniors and Single Parents Association.

“United Way is now famous with all my community,” Friba says. “It’s an amazing organization.”

“We center equity in our work, creating connections and collaborations between residents, community organizations, schools, municipalities and local businesses. Our approach focuses on long term sustainability, so that the impact of Hi Neighbour continues beyond UWBC’s presence in community,” Emily says.

“We are like the bridge to connect people who live in the neighbourhood with all the things available to them and we are listening to them,” Mary says.

Lets’s be here. For each other. Donate today. For tomorrow.