The airport is where new immigrants enter Halifax. But they’re not alone when they get here
By Suzanne Rent
David VanDerpuye landed at Halifax’s airport about 11 p.m. He was a long way from his native Ghana, coming to Mount Saint Vincent University to study.
But when he got off the plane, he wasn’t sure what to do next. And the airline lost his luggage. “This was my first time in Canada,” he remembers. “I was looking for my bags. No one else was at the airport.”
Meanwhile, Kay Balite, international student advisor, at MSVU’s International Education Centre, and HongXiang (Mahx) Ma, the Centre’s communications and office assistant, were waiting to give VanDerpuye his welcome. They were at the airport with a sign brandishing the MSVU logo.
But they almost missed each other.
“He looked at me, just glanced at me, and walked by,” Ma says. “He seemed to be looking for someone. So I went back and said, ‘Are you David?’ And he said yes.”
VanDerpuye was relieved. “I wouldn’t have been able to get [my luggage] back on my own because I am shy and from another country,” he says. “Kay helped me. She took me to one of the help desks and they brought my bag to my room a couple of days later.”
MSVU provides this welcome service to all international students coming to the school. And it’s a crucial component of getting the students ready for their new lives here.
“It doesn’t matter what time they come in, we meet them at the airport,” Balite says. “We bring them back to their residence, to their hotel, or wherever they are staying. It’s the first impression they get. Beyond the impression, it’s the knowing, for parents, that someone will be there to pick up their child. And if anything were to go wrong, they know they are in someone’s hands.”
Officials with the Halifax International Airport Authority know the airport’s importance to new immigrants. “We step back often and look at how we welcome everyone, but in particular, how we welcome immigrants and refugees,” says Joyce Carter, president and CEO of the Halifax International Airport Authority (HIAA).
The HIAA works with officials at ISANS and Nova Scotia Office of Immigration. They find out when newcomers are arriving at the airport and often meet them at the gate.
Carter says airport officials learned lessons about welcoming when Syrian families arrived in the city in 2016. Those families arrived in at the airport exhausted, overwhelmed, landing in a place unknown to them, and coming from a place of war and trauma. Carter says officials and staff welcomed the refugees with gifts, including those for the children, and helped everyone through the customs process.
“It was really quite humbling to see that unfold,” Carter says. “It’s very emotional. You step back and say, ‘This is really what it’s all about.’ For us, it felt like a start, but for them it was the end of a journey. You can’t lose sight of that.”
But the airport continues to work on ways to make the airport more welcoming. Carter says soon there will be new welcome signs in the arrival area. These signs will include 12 languages to greet passengers, plus photos of people from diverse cultures. Officials are also looking at hosting Canadian citizenship ceremonies at the airport, a way to honouring its place as the new Pier 21 for immigrants.
“The main hope it when they first walk off that plane and they arrive at the airport, they feel like home,” Carter says.
Cynthia Copp and Patti McClelland also know a lot about welcomes at the airport. Both volunteer with the Tartan Team, a group of some 100 volunteers who, during four-hour shifts, greet travellers at the airport. Their distinctive vests sport the Nova Scotian tartan and golden pins. Copp wears a colourful pair of sneakers she says get her even more attention.
“It’s never been dull,” says McClelland. “I can say I have never been bored here.”
To work on the Tartan Team, volunteers take a three-day training course. There they learn human interactions, the layout of the airport, and security. They often take refreshers courses and workshops on spotting human trafficking. Copp and McClelland are both retired; they enjoy helping others.
Copp works in the international arrivals. In that area, there is a waterfall and a bridge indicating you’ve left one country, and are coming into a new one. There are welcome signs and pictures of Nova Scotia. She’s not allowed to initiate conversation with travellers other than to say hello or bonjour, but they can ask her questions.
“I often notice travellers stop, take a breath, and then the pictures start,” she says. “They are just so thrilled to be here. Their faces just light up because we are there and are smiling and happy to see them. I see that positive, happy first-time experience for them.”
McClelland works closer to the departure end of the airport. Still, she gets to see people coming and going. “When I see people I see a lot of joy,” she says. “People are so glad to be met, people are so glad to have arrived. You can see them visibly relax. Like us all, they are glad to see their bags.”
Copp remembers well one family that arrived at the airport as part of the Syrian sponsorship program. Their flight was to arrive on a Saturday, but came in on Sunday during Copp’s shift. The parents and two young children didn’t know any English. Copp and her team contacted the Language Line, a language translation phone service available to anyone travelling via or working in the airport. They also called in an Air Canada employee who spoke Arabic. Eventually, everyone managed to get the family in a cab headed to the city.
“When they left it was with huge smiles and you could tell they were grateful for the intervention we were able to provide for them,” Copp says.
Staff at the International Student Centre at Mount Saint Vincent University will continue to welcome its newest students. Ma remembers his own experience, too. It was three years ago and was much like VanDerpuye’s. It was Balite, now his colleague, who was scheduled to welcome him at the airport. His flight was 30 minutes late as the plane circled the airport because of heavy fog. He thought Balite might leave. He had no Canadian cash. The nerves of being in a new place started to settle in. But when he got into the airport, Balite was there to greet him.
“I thought, ‘oh good, this is my family member,’” he says. “She is so nice and she told me everything about living here, where I should go. She drove me to my dormitory and brought me some food. I thought this is very touching. This is really impressive.”
Now as the communications and office assistant, Ma is one of the welcoming committee. He helps keep connect with the students long before they all meet at the airport. They exchange messages via email and social media. He shares instructions on where to go in the airport and he can tell them what to expect.
For those who will soon be landing at the airport, he suggests reaching out before the plane arrives.
“Contact us,” he says. “Take initiative so we can provide help. If we can contact them prior to their arrival or let them tell us what they need so we can tailor services for them.”