Welcoming the stranger among us

Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. (Hebrews 13:2)

Thrusted into unfamiliar surroundings — a new city, new job, new school, new role — most of us have experienced, at some point in our lives, that gut-wrenching feeling of being on the outside.

For newcomers, this feeling of otherness, of awkwardness and frustration, is a daily reality.

When people from all over the world flock to North America, says immigration consultant Jacquelyn Co, they’re often consumed with visions of prosperity and security, of finally making it to the land of plenty.

“In the midst of starry-eyed hopes, my job is to provide a reality check. I’m not here selling the dream or illusion,” says Co.

“They don’t realize upon arrival, their work has just started.”

What are some of the biggest barriers for those who have relocated to North America? Here are three of the most overwhelming adjustments for newcomers as they settle into their new lives.


Adapting to a new language is difficult for 26 per cent of immigrants.*

Seyon Kim is a community advocate for Journey Home, an organization serving refugee families by providing housing, settlement assistance, and relational support. “Without the ability to communicate, one’s sense of safety and well-being — being lost in a new city, basic needs [such as being] unable to ask for or locate food or water, is greatly impeded.”

Though she’s not a refugee, 37-year old artist-educator Jill Cardwell says she has experienced this firsthand. Relocating from Northern Ireland seven years ago, she says even grocery shopping was tough for her in the beginning. “When I recognized something, I would buy it. It was less disorienting to figure out, so I ended up eating tins of soup, bread, butter, pasta, sauces for weeks.”

Former HR Manager Karen Xiao, 28, says she experienced a kind of language barrier she wasn’t expecting. She says remembers feeling estranged in conversations, even though she grew up in an international community in Hong Kong where English was the main language spoken.

“I felt lost at times,” says Xiao. “I could not relate with Canadians because I didn’t understand their slang or certain phrases. Because I didn’t grow up here, I had no idea the pop culture they were referring to.” 

Culture and Connection

13 per cent mentioned the challenge of adapting to new cultures and values.*

Xiao and her husband have been married for a year now, and surprisingly, their biggest marital issue has been her inability to drive. Her husband grew up in North America where driving is a rite of passage. Xiao, on the other hand, says she was accustomed to Hong Kong, where people commuted or walked. Her fear of getting lost in a new city and of not being acquainted with bus routes caused her to rely heavily upon her husband to drive her places. Slowly, she says, she is adjusting her expectations; she has recently passed the first stage of the driving tests.

32-year old Eduardo Sasso also found himself having a difficult time adjusting to North American culture; he initially came to Canada from Costa Rica to complete his Masters degree.

“On one hand, being a visible minority that’s historically stereotyped as lazy or less capable, I feel disadvantaged at times. It makes finding work difficult,” says Sasso.

“Also, Latin American culture is warmer, more relational and family-oriented. North Americans are more intellectual and task-driven. If you’re not from this city, it’s difficult to insert yourself in a group. But with good reason, perhaps people are accustomed to friends leaving, so they’re not willing to go too deep,” he says.

Friendships and Support

Social support and interactions are another challenge for new immigrants, with 13 per cent citing the absence of support from their home country as a difficulty and seven per cent citing the lack of social interactions/new friends in Canada.*

“I need friends!” wails Xiao. “It’s a big stretch to be uprooted from my networks and friendships from Hong Kong and to start from scratch. It seems that the older one is, the harder it is to break into people’s circles. You may not be welcomed.”

She says her saving grace was attending school. “It put everyone on the same playing field. We were all in a similar situation of newness to one another and the program. No one felt like the only stranger.”

The biggest key for Cardwell’s transition was having someone intentionally walking alongside her for a period of time — acquainting her with the transit system, grocery stores, introducing her to “normal Canadian life” — until she was able to gain confidence and independence.

“When I moved to Canada, I was given a friend of a relative’s work address. So pretty much, a complete stranger, and told to show up and they would take care of me,” she says.

And yet, the struggle continues after seven years of settling into Canada. “People are friendly because you’re a newcomer,” says Cardwell. “But I find it hard to have deeper friendships, to find those willing to put in the time, perhaps because of the transient nature of living in an urban city where people come and go constantly.”

Xiao’s husband Bily says locals need to take more responsibility to get past the surface with newcomers, and to truly invite people into their inner circles.

“You don’t need a lot of friends. Just a few consistent ones,” he says. “Locals need to have a heightened sense of awareness for hospitality and receiving people,” he says. “Not just saying hi, but inviting the newcomer to social events, homes, or simply explaining, ‘This is a Canadian activity: barbecues, the beach, hockey games, hiking.‘ [Locals] need to express desire in forming true friendships. Intentionality is key.”

These are simple acts. Grocery shopping. Exploring bus routes. Inviting someone into your home. Having a simple conversation. Explaining cultural differences. Confiding in someone, as friends do.

But admittedly, hospitality, this purposeful welcoming, is inconvenient, messy, and just plain hard. In a culture that’s increasingly isolated and self-dependent, our culture desperately needs it. Hospitality is the bonding glue that eradicates the borders between outsider and insider, alien and citizen.

So as we interact with those who have recently — or not-so-recently — arrived, let us be conscious of their needs for social interaction, for inclusion, for understanding.

Let us, as Sasso says, “take the risk of finding Jesus in the face of the stranger.”

*Statistics Canada, 2008

Originally published in Issue 20 of Converge Magazine.

Photo (Flickr CC) by lussqueittt.