Women Sharing Heritage Program, Association for New Canadians


AUDIENCE   Settlement and social workers

POPULATION OF INTEREST   Women, government-assisted refugees

LOCATION   St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador

THE NEED   Evidence shows that refugee women are particularly vulnerable to experiencing sexual and gender-based violence. Safe spaces are needed to facilitate social networks and a sense of community belonging.

WHAT'S PROMISING   The Women Sharing Heritage (WiSH) Program demonstrates how a connection to land, sea, sky and others can positively influence the mental health of refugee women.

KEY TAKEAWAY   Physical and psychological health are positively influenced by engagement with nature and with one another

Suzy Haghighi, Director of Settlement Services, Association for New Canadians, writes:

Association for New Canadians (ANC) is a non-profit, community-based organization that has delivered settlement and integration services to immigrants and refugees in Newfoundland and Labrador for over 40 years. Part of this work includes offering holistic programs and services to Government Assisted Refugees that are rooted in the social determinants of health. We work with individuals and families to secure housing, learn English, enroll in school, develop or enhance skills, and to secure employment. We offer childcare services for language learners at our English school and offer programming to connect with community and one another.  Settlement Social Workers offer short-term counseling and we have a public health clinic located on site. Through our holistic approach, we have developed trusting, empowering relationships with individuals and families.  These collaborative partnerships facilitate positive outcomes for newcomers as they establish lives in Canada and become a vital and enriching part of our community.

Statistics tell us that refugee women are more likely to experience or be vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) during displacement, flight to safety and in communities where they resettle. Women, particularly those arriving alone or as single parents, may have limited social and family supports and be vulnerable to isolation.

Women Sharing Heritage (WiSH) Program

In response, ANC saw a need to develop a program that connects women to their community and decreases isolation. Drawing on the expertise of Fishing For Success, we established the six-week WiSH program to connect women to the outdoors, traditional Newfoundland and Labradorean crafts and activities and other young women from the province. WiSH is a part of our group programming to support young newcomer women who may have experienced SGBV. It serves as a safe space to socialize and explore, while celebrating one another’s culture and ways of knowing.

We call it an “un-program” as we purposely try to create a loose structure for the group to let the women determine what they want to do; activities have included cod fishing, berry picking, an Eritrean coffee ceremony and dancing.

Research tells us that physical and psychological health are positively influenced by engagement with nature and with one another. There is power connecting to land, sea, sky, and one another. Women, and particularly those arriving as Government Assisted Refugees, face so many stressors as they establish lives in Canada. Nature provides a safe space and time for self-directed healing and is a wonderful setting for cross-cultural knowledge exchange. The program has led to positive outcomes for many of the women we work with, including increased school attendance, fewer crisis interventions, and increased confidence in decision making with peers and family.

WiSH serves as an example of group programming that takes place outside the confines of a traditional settlement or health service setting. Service providers can replicate this promising practice in different ways by using nature as the catalyst for support.  In addition, nature-based activities often serve as good opportunities to provide a client with a space to connect with others and to establish a sense of belonging – all of which can lead to better mental health outcomes.

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