Sean Meyer
St. Thomas-Elgin Weekly News | Feb 23, 2017

The St. Thomas-Elgin Local Immigration Partnership (STELIP) is a community initiative to facilitate the integration of newcomers into both the Railway City and the wider county.

With a mission like that, it makes sense to bring people together through food, music and a celebration of local diversity.

That celebration took place Feb. 22 during STELIP’s fourth Moving Forward event, which this year took the form of a cultural bazaar.

“It’s a celebration of the work STELIP does in the community,” said STELIP project facilitator Rachel LeClair. “We just really want to showcase what our organization does, what our partners at the tables do, and we also want to celebrate local cultural diversity. Every year we try to mix it up and this year we thought why not a cultural bazaar?”

Taking place at the St. Thomas Senior Centre, the bazaar included 11 countries or communities — depending on how they identified — sharing dance and musical performances, information booths, interactive activities, international flavours, and other cultural endeavours.
The program began with an Aboriginal smudging ceremony, led by craftsman Hugh Hill, a member of Oneida Nation of the Thames.

Taking part in his fourth Moving Forward, Hill said it is important to share cultural awareness, not only for those learning about his, but for him to have the opportunity to embrace others as well.
“I love meeting people; I love sharing my experiences, I love sharing my culture. That is something I’ve done for a very long time,” Hill said. “We (the Oneida people) are people in the same land as they (the wider community) are and we share everybody’s culture. It’s a chance to come and see us and share our culture, no matter what your culture is.”

Hill said one of the best parts of Moving Forward, particularly in the new cultural bazaar, was the openness and — perhaps not surprisingly — the inclusiveness of the event.

The creation of a welcoming atmosphere is one reason Hill said he sees the bazaar as an important endeavour.

“We see a lot more cultures represented and a lot more people coming and asking questions. That’s a good thing,” he said. “In other atmospheres I’ve been in, it hasn’t been as open and people are a bit more timid. They are, I don’t know if I should ask, or do you mind if I ask a question? In this atmosphere, they are just willing to come up and ask.”

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Iffat Farooqui is a nearly 30-year resident of St. Thomas, a henna artist and a member of STELIP’s Cultural Diversity Committee, which LeClair praised in having taken the lead on organizing the bazaar.
The bazaar is important, she explained, because it builds awareness without participants having to go very far from home.

Given the increasing global divisions around immigration, she said embracing diversity is essential.
“With what the world is becoming now I think it’s very important to ask questions rather than be scared, whether it’s religion, culture, countries; whatever,” Farooqui said. “I can introduce my culture, my religion, my country. Even though I have never lived in Pakistan — I was born in England, raised in Kuwait, and now live in Canada — my grandparents are there, my culture is from there. This is definitely a comfortable place to ask questions. That’s why I’m here.”

The response to the bazaar, Farooqui said, was strong enough the committee is excited to see it grow and have more people from St. Thomas and Elgin County be involved.

LeClair said the bazaar allowed the various cultures to “showcase” what they bring to the table — figuratively and literally — which helps bring them into the wider St. Thomas and Elgin County community.
“These are the people who help make our community,” LeClair said. “Every year we get new immigrants to the community, new people coming here. We want to celebrate what they bring.”

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Sean Meyer is a reporter with MetrolandMedia. He can be reached via email . Follow him on Twitter .

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