“In Canada, people don’t know their neighbours,” says Alice Tagwira, with a touch of pity. In Alice’s home country of Zimbabwe, she says communities are much closer-knit. “In my culture, everyone is family,” she says. “You know everyone in your building. You greet each other. You support each other in sickness and also in happiness.”

In the mid-2000s, as Zimbabwe was battling a perfect storm of drought, HIV/AIDS, political violence and economic collapse (where hyperinflation sent prices of basics like a loaf of bread into the hundreds of millions of Zimbabwean dollars), many of these intimate neighbourhoods were torn apart. Among them was Alice’s, and in 2007, she joined the 3 million others who found no other choice but to flee across the border to South Africa. While living there as a refugee, the resilient woman not only managed to avoid deportation (unlike thousands of others) but also met and married her husband, who himself had escaped the civil war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo. By 2010, the couple, now with a 20-month-old son, had successfully navigated the process to become UN-sponsored refugees. In October of that year, with only a few South African rand to their name, the family departed for their new home of Vancouver, Canada.

Alice remembers that when she first arrived, a lot of people discouraged her from getting out and working. “They told me to relax for a while, but I didn’t make that mistake.” Within weeks, the outgoing young mother had signed up for a community mentorship program in her new neighbourhood in Burnaby. The networks she built soon led to a stream of other volunteer opportunities assisting other new immigrants in projects for Mosaic (at the Burnaby Newcomers’ Centre for Children and Families), the ISS of BC and the Little Mountain Neighbourhood House (LMNH).

It was through her work at LMNH that Alice met Kathy Coyne, an instructor in Capilano University’s Community Development and Outreach department. Kathy encouraged Alice to enrol in the university’s Community Capacity Building (CCB) program for nonprofit leaders, which she did—despite having given birth to her second child, a daughter, only three weeks before the start of term. With no other options for childcare, she simply brought the baby with her each week to class. Alice says she was initially worried about putting out her classmates, but in the small group of community changemakers from all walks of life, a newborn baby was more than welcome. “Kathy and the CCB people were really supportive,” she says of the group. “It’s not like each man for himself there. It’s like family.”

Today, as an experienced community worker, Alice has found paid work facilitating recreation programs for seniors and people living with disabilities. She loves her job, but says she is by no means finished with her education. “I want to study more! I want to be a leader, maybe a social worker,” she says. As a next step, Alice plans to attend Capilano University’s new Community Leadership and Social Change diploma program, which is launching in Fall 2014. “It’s just a dream!” Alice says, smiling at the ceiling. “I experienced a lot of difficulties coming here. Now I have confidence again, and I want to make a difference.”

Submitted by Marketing & Communications