Highlights from the 4th On New Shores conference ~ “Resilience of immigrants: Coping with stress in various cultural contexts”

I attended the 4th “On New Shores” conference at the University of Guelph, Ontario. Over two days (Sept 30-Oct 1, 2010), delegates were fortunate to hear and participate in presentations from a good range of academics and practitioners on the topic of resiliency in the immigrant population. Here are just a few highlights from the two days.

First, I love it when conference organizers start their conferences with clearly articulated goals: Susan Chuang, Associate Professor in the Family Relations and Applied Nutrition department, opened the conference with a list of 3 simple and do-able goals:

1. Communicating – bringing together practitioners, academics, researchers, policy makers, front-line settlement workers in one space to speak to and learn from each other.
2. Sharing ideas – issue and problem-solving ideas, suggestions, examples and experiences of delegates.
3. Promoting collaboration.

Also impressive was the Guelph Mayor in her opening welcome to delegates. Karen Farbridge is a progressive mayor and is proud of her city of Guelph, among the top five destinations to receive immigrants, citing about 20% of Guelph’s population as newcomers. Mayor Farbridge was delighted to share with us that among the recipients of the Ontario Newcomer Champion Awards, are Guelph area residents.

A special dedication was made for the late Dr. Tom Luster, known widely for his work on the “Lost Boys of Sudan”. Two colleagues and a grad student from Michigan State University paid a touching tribute to Tom. The student told us that during her work with Tom, she was asked how many other students he supervised. She said she was taken aback by the question, because, as she said: “I felt like I was Tom’s only student!” Such was his dedication, support and care for the people he worked with. I met Tom at the 2007 On New Shores conference and wish I spent more time talking to him.

Next, Dr. Michael Ungar spoke on the conference theme “The Social Ecology of Resilience: Culture, Context, Resources, and Meaning”. Ungar is a Dalhousie professor, social worker, and author of several books – popular and academic, including “We Generation: Raising Socially Responsible Kids”; “Too Safe for Their Own Good”; “Playing at Being Bad: The Hidden Resilience of Troubled Teens”.  His newest text (2011) is “Counseling in Challenging Contexts: Working with Individuals and Families Across Clinical and Cultural Settings”.

Dr. Ungar’s talk was an introduction to theories of resilience. Ungar set the stage for the conference, and also for his closing keynote on day two where he spoke on the application of such theories, – with great insight, a snazzy ppt and a quick wit. It was a pleasure to be present for his talks. In this first session, on theories, Ungar spoke on the history of the study of resiliency and what was previously called “the invulnerable child”. But, for Ungar, “nurture trumps nature” (attributed to Rutter) and he spoke about adaptive behaviours to adverse conditions and/or events. Ungar’s definition of resiliency:

“In the context of exposure to significant adversity, resiliency is both the capacity of individuals to navigate their way to the psychological, social and cultural and physical resources that sustain their wellbeing, and their capacity individually and collectively to negotiate for these resources to be provided and experienced in culturally meaningful ways”.

Ungar asked delegates to consider the three key pieces of this definition: navigation, negotiation and culturally meaningful. These three themes resonated throughout the conference sessions.

I was intrigued by a comment in one of the sessions I attended by Reza Shahbazi of the New Canadians’ Centre of Excellence Inc., Windsor, Ontario. Shahbazi spoke about what it means to be a Canadian and that the definition of “Canadian” is “a moving marker”. Newcomers seem to be perpetually chasing the definition. I wonder too how immigration and multiculturalism policy keep that marker moving.

In her session, independent Consultant, Dr. Judith Colbert (principal author of the LINC Childminding guidelines) shared news of her upcoming book “Welcoming Newcomer Children: The Settlement Needs of Young Immigrants and Refugees”. Colbert asked delegates to consider the specific needs of the very young newcomer child. While much attention, research, policy responses and discussion can be found on immigrant youth, children from birth to age six garner less attention. immigrantchildren.ca looks forward to the book and to the launch of an accompanying website, TBA.

At the end of a long day one, delegates were treated to a warm and information rich presentation by Sarah Liddell of Aisling Discoveries Child and Family Centre. Liddell’s presentation was on the Ready, Set, Go! school readiness program, targeted to newcomer children and families. Particularly interesting and impressive was that the program not only works with newcomer children to understand what to expect in school, Ready, Set, Go! welcomes parents and extended family members to participate in a parallel program, providing families with important information and strategies for navigation and negotiation.

Day two brought back Dr. Michael Ungar who generously shared stories (and videos) about the families and youth he has worked with, clearly demonstrating the applicability of his theory of resiliency.

Thanks to Dr. Susan Chuang for organizing the conference (and for the best conference swag ever!) and a special thanks to her undergraduate and graduate students who were always available to cheerfully assist delegates. Applause.

Hold the date – the 5th On New Shores will be held September 27-28, 2012.

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