It was two years after Jane Muema and her husband Chris came to Canada from their native Kenya when their daughter said the words that made Jane’s heart sink.
“I think we don’t belong here,” Pendo said, then four years old. “It’s time to go home.”
The first two years in Canada had been a difficult transition. They had no family or friends here when they arrived in 2001. And Canadian culture was proving difficult to adjust to.
Jane and Chris had both attended Seattle Pacific University, where they earned MBAs on scholarships. After returning to Kenya, the young family decided to immigrate to Canada, based on the strong public education system and the lack of crime and corruption here.
Kenya is a scary place to raise a family, Jane admits. Security was an ever-present concern, with kidnappings and robberies common in Nairobi.
“We had a very positive experience in Seattle, and we knew Vancouver was very similar,” Jane says.
The family eventually settled in Maple Ridge and bought a home here. However, the transition to life in Canada was more difficult than they expected.
“When we moved to Maple Ridge, we found ourselves feeling very isolated,” Jane says. “Canadian culture is very different … it was not as welcoming as African culture.”
The problem wasn’t that Canadians were necessarily unfriendly, she says, it was just that everyone seemed to keep to themselves.
“The Maple Ridge community is very established,” she says.
Being one of the few black families in town, the family felt racially isolated, as well.
Pendo says she still feels like an outsider sometimes.
“I still feel like people stop and stare,” she says. “It’s annoying because it happens so often.”
When Jane reached out to other families of African descent in the area and found they were experiencing a similar culture shock, she decided she needed to do something to help local children adjust to life in Canada.
With the financial support of the Brunette Fellowship Church, Jane founded the Hadiya Girls’ Group.
The group provides an opportunity for girls of African descent to connect with each other, and share the challenges of adjusting to life in Canada.
“This is a place where the kids of African descent could belong,” Jane says.
The group features about a dozen girls from Rwanda, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Burundi, Liberia, Kenya, as well as Haiti and Columbia.
In addition to learning about Canadian culture, they group also aims to educate non-Africans in the wider community about African culture. The girls are invited to bring a friend from school to the meetings, so they can learn about African culture, too.
The group celebrated it’s one-year anniversary last month, and Jane says she hopes to expand the program into Surrey and other areas.
“There is a growing need in the community,” she says. “The first four or five years here, you’re really figuring out if you are coming or going.”
Jane’s son initially had difficulties in school because his teacher thought he wasn’t participating in class discussions.
“He would just keep quiet, and the teacher interpreted it as disinterest, but he scored very well in tests,” she says.
In African schools, however, students aren’t encouraged to speak up – they must sit still and only speak when spoken to.
“Many teachers don’t realize how much change a child is going through,” says Jane. “
This day, the group has assembled at Jane’s home to make Father’s Day cards out of construction paper and pipe cleaners. Many of the group’s activities are centered on important events in Canadian culture.
For last month’s Royal Wedding, the girls dressed in tiaras and pink and yellow gowns and celebrated with a high tea. In addition to learning about the monarchy, Jane used the opportunity teach the girls about manners and etiquette.
It’s been 10 years since Jane and her family moved to Canada, and Pendo says she’s happy to be living in Canada now.
“It’s a joy,” she says. “I still miss Africa, but not as much.”
As for Jane, she says she’s stopped thinking like a Kenyan, and started thinking like a Canadian.
“What I really appreciate about [Canada], is that it you can make a difference here if you chose to identify something you are passionate about,” she says.
Join Hadiya Girls
To learn more about the Hadiya Girls Group, contact Jane Muema at 604-466-9066.