Black History Month sheds light on immigrant experience

By Josh Hall (Twitter: @Vancan19)
February 6, 2018 - 10:45am Updated: February 6, 2018 - 9:02pm

Asked what comes to mind when she thinks about Black History Month, Zimbabwean ex-pat Tabitha Phiri thinks about slavery, but also about the people who persevered and fought for black rights during the 20th century.

She cites American gospel singer and renowned civil rights activist Mahalia Jackson as an inspiration. Prior to her death in 1972, Jackson sang at a concert in Montgomery, Alabama in 1956 at the invite of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Phiri, now a Program Coordinator with the Central Alberta Immigrant Women’s Association in Red Deer, immigrated to Canada in 1997. She assists black immigrants in becoming accustomed to and comfortable in their new home.

“It’s more about recognizing it, and why I say that is, when it comes to discrimination, I feel like black people have faced more than other immigrants,” she says about Black History Month. “When I’m thinking about the history of black people, the slave trade, to an extent I can say it’s only kind of a celebration because things have changed.”

She notes, however, there are still areas where society can improve, noting patience is the key to welcoming new immigrants.

“You go through a lot of phases, the first one being culture shock. You come here so excited because of what you hear about the whole country, but by the time you arrive here, reality strikes and you discover you have a long way to go.

Phiri says whether it’s trying to learn a new language overnight, new foods, or just the people, many immigrants are terrified of asking for help -- and the snowball just gets bigger.

“Children are struggling with adjusting and then nobody is really available for the other,” she says. “Kids go to school, they try to cope with the other kids and then they learn the culture so fast and they come back home with a completely different culture and it’s another shock to the parents who become afraid they’re going to lose their children.”

As an immigrant, you aren’t comfortable reaching out to people, and people aren’t comfortable reaching out to you, Phiri adds, noting some immigrants fear deportation if they make even the simplest of mistakes.

“I try to be understanding to people who are coming because I have gone through all of these difficulties,” Phiri says. “A Canadian who has never been an immigrant somewhere may not even see these certain things as important.”

Tabitha Phiri will be sharing her experiences and wisdom at a Black History Month event on February 21 at the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery. Hosted by the Welcoming and Inclusive Communities Network, the event runs 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.

More details about the event are available on Facebook. You can find out more about the CAIWA at

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