When Fredericton began accepting refugees last year, Crestina Matta jumped at the chance to help. An undergraduate student in the faculty of arts at the University of New Brunswick, Ms. Matta speaks Arabic and English and knew she would make the transition to Canadian soil easier for refugees.

Since September 2015, Ms. Matta and fellow members of the Brunswick Street Baptist Church congregation have been helping a family of six Iraqi refugees navigate their new lives in Fredericton.

“We picked them up from the airport. We got them settled in and helped them get their Medicare and social security cards,” she said. “For the first few months, I visited them almost every day.”

Ms. Matta has been working as an interpreter for her refugee family. For months, she’s been integral to their lives, answering questions about how Canada works and making interactions easier.

“They had questions I had to answer and people had questions for them to answer. They trust me with sensitive information about their lives, so I’ve become a part of their family and vice versa.”

Ms. Matta is part of a larger effort found in the UNB community. Students, staff, and faculty have offered their time and resources to help newcomers to Canada. The Gregg Centre at UNB Fredericton has hosted information sessions and welcome events, along with fundraisers to help refugees.

Ms. Matta has more than a passing interest. When she was 11, her family came to Canada as refugees. She has an appreciation for what current refugees are experiencing. 

“I understand the children’s feelings more than the parents, but sometimes I look at them and see my own parents. I remember how my family reacted and it’s almost like I’m reliving it as an adult. 

Ms. Matta was part of the committee that held a welcome event for Syrian refugees at UNB in February. Ms. Matta invited her Iraqi family along, knowing they felt isolated in a new, foreign land.

The families at the event were able to establish connections and form a community. While they all have different personalities, they all went through the same experiences, Ms. Matta said. 

Ms. Matta has been encouraged by the Canadian reception the refugees have received as well as the efforts the refugees are making to establish connections.

“A student asked me how to say ‘thank you’ in Arabic because the family living in his apartment building had cooked them dinner. While neither knows the other’s language yet, it’s a positive sign both are interested in opening up those lines of communication.”

There are plans for another mixer with refugees. While the first event was a more formal icebreaker, the second gathering is meant to give families a chance to create friendships with refugees and Canadians alike. 

In speaking with the refugees at the welcome event, Ms. Matta discovered that learning English is a top priority for many of them. However, they still struggle with basic needs, such as finding furniture – particularly beds – for their apartments.

For more information on fundraising campaigns, the various ways the UNB community is pitching in and how to help, check out UNB’s refugee support webpage or contact Cindy Brown.

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