When Besma Salih moved to Winnipeg from Sudan three years ago, she had never heard of Santa Claus.
“He’s so cute. I always take a picture with him,” she laughed.
Originally from Eritrea, the Winnipegger is now one of 24 youth volunteers who helped organize a holiday party Saturday afternoon for the city’s new immigrant and refugee families.
“Back home, we didn’t [know] much about Christmas,” Salih said. “I remember my first Christmas here in Canada, I learned a lot — about Santa, the colours red and green.”
The party is put on by NEEDS — Newcomers Employment and Education Development Services. The organization provides support for immigrant and refugee children, youth, and their families, including after-school and employment programs.
“NEEDS is like home for me. When I was new, I didn’t speak English that well, so they helped me a lot in school,” said Salih.
The holiday party started nine years ago, hosting about 100 people in a school gymnasium. This year’s was the biggest yet, with 600 people attending the festivities at the Marlborough Hotel in downtown Winnipeg.
“It’s for everyone. They welcome a lot of cultures. Even if you don’t speak English, you can come and people will translate for you,” Salih said.
At the sign-up table, people were welcomed in more than 10 different languages, including Swahili, Kurdish and Arabic.
The event featured entertainment, face-painting, gingerbread decorating, and a visit from Santa, with each child going home with a gift.
Like Salih, many of the organization’s volunteers started out as users of NEEDS programs, says Yu Sun, who does outreach work with the group.
“They used to be our clients, so we actually see them grow into the role they’re doing now. They want to give back to the community now.”
The event has built a reputation with new families in Winnipeg as a way to integrate into the community, especially during a time that can be difficult.
“We know holiday season might be a little lonely for them, because you see everybody around you going back to their family,” Sun said.
“But they are newcomers. It might be their first year here, so they have nowhere to go to. That’s why we have this event.”
The party is particularly poignant for Zahra Al Mouse and her 12 year-old daughter, Nafisa Al Lilo, and 14-year-old son, Abdelaal Al Lilo.
They’re celebrating three years since they came to Winnipeg from Syria.
They look forward to the holiday party every year.
“We are so many people from different countries.… And we feel very comfortable when we see other people [here],” Al Mouse said.
“Sometimes we feel lonely, because we don’t have a family [here]. Our family is back home. But the NEEDS centre every year has this party, and I like my children to have fun with many people from different places,” she said.
“This is the most important thing for me.”