Newcomer Story: Brhan Abrha

Brhan looking at the cameraBrhan’s answer to the question “what do you like about Manitoba?” confused me.

She said “Oh, I like the shiny one. This one,” not realizing that she was pointing to snow. She added, “I love it so much, you know? I like looking at it from my window and it makes me happy when it’s so white and shiny. The sun with the snow – looking at it makes me happy!”

Quite an unusual response since most newcomers I’ve interviewed dreaded winter. But you see, Brhan has experienced winter before. She moved from Ethiopia to Denmark because her husband earned a scholarship there for his Masters and PhD. They had been living there for almost six years when they decided to move to Manitoba.

Memories of Copenhagen, Denmark

While in Copenhagen, Brhan and her husband grew their family to four. They were blessed with two sons which kept her busy. Later on Brhan was able to work part-time in a bakery and do cleaning jobs at the university where her husband was studying. They had built close ties there and felt part of a strong community. “We had a very social life in Denmark. We were connected with people from our church and our family there. Sometimes we miss that kind of environment. Even my son misses the get-togethers with friends after school. It’s very easy for kids to enjoy life there because there are many conveniences for them and winter is not like here,” Brhan said, pointing to Denmark’s mild climate.

Life was good but they realized that they needed to move for their children’s future. They were the only black kids at school and her eldest son started to have issues about this. “The kids just want to know so they touch his hair, skin, and ask him every day why he’s black,” Brhan said. It was heartbreaking for her to notice that her son was starting to resent the colour of his skin. The couple began thinking of going back to their home country or to one that is more multicultural and diverse. Luckily, they had a friend who was living in Manitoba who was willing to sponsor them. Brhan and her family landed in Winnipeg in October 2015.

English is harder than Danish

“Before I came to Canada, my plan was to go to school, graduate with another professional degree, get a job in my field and our life will be better. I thought English was not that hard because I studied in English schools and universities so I felt that I will improve (my English) quickly. But when I went to school, I discovered that it takes time. It became stressful for me. I spent studying five to six hours but I didn’t learn the way I want. So I decided to stop”, Brhan said.

“Someone told me that it can take three to four years to have the level of English I wanted. I could study but that would mean that my husband would be the only one working. We have family in our home country that we support so I said I have to work. I went to the Academy of Learning College and took the entrance exam for Health Care Aide. I passed, scoring 98%. So I decided to continue with the Health Care Aide course. I finished it and started working after I graduated in 2017,” she relates.

“I would like to add that learning with English Online is helping me in many ways, not only with the language. Attending classes also helps me not to feel lonely when I am staying home by myself. They always encourage me in my studies. They also help me in my settlement by providing information about who to contact when I have issues.”

Meanwhile, her husband recommended that she try English Online to continue improving her language skills. She joined the Live & Learn program and studied in her spare time. “I attend mostly Coffee Chats. I remember when I started, I was so afraid to speak that I was shaking. I wish the teacher would skip me when it was my turn to speak. But now, I am better. I am not afraid to speak. Learning here has given me more confidence. I think it helps me a lot in many ways, especially in my listening. I can understand most of the words now. I may not be able to speak or write very well (or as I want) but I am learning. It’s good, I like it,” she said.

“I would like to add that learning with English Online is helping me in many ways, not only with the language. Attending classes also helps me not to feel lonely when I am staying home by myself. They always encourage me in my studies. They also help me in my settlement by providing information about who to contact when I have issues. For example, when I told Blaine that I want to be a business person, he told me who I should contact for a license. When I wasn’t able to work due to the pandemic, he told me that I am eligible to apply for some benefits like CRCB. I am so happy to know them,” she said.

Working as an essential worker and soon-to-be business woman

Before the pandemic, the couple was planning on setting up a store to sell meat products and groceries. “My husband is a food scientist. We were planning on creating our own formula and then selling the products. But the pandemic came. Now we have to wait a couple of months,” she said.

“It wasn’t my plan to be a health care aide,” she continues. “I was planning to be a nurse or to own a business (my plan A and plan B). I want to handle my own time and to be my own boss. I also think that it is going to be the best arrangement for me and my family. But I feel that I need more English, I need more confidence,” she said.

In the meantime, Brhan continues to study and work part time. This allows her to take care of her growing family (they also have a daughter now) and support her sons’ adjustment to Canadian life. Much like the snow she loves looking at, her future shines bright as she continues to improve her English skills and work on her plans.