Carmen Celina Moncayo was a community psychologist in her native Colombia before coming to Canada, where she uses those skills as Community Wellness Program Coordinator at ISANS. A highlight of her work was the recent community mental health assessment. “I was so touched by the stories – in terms of suffering, but also in terms of people’s resilience.”
Carmen Celina landed here in 1999 with daughter Violeta, then 12, for a break from the political upheaval at home where she’d worked in the Ombudsman’s office. “I left by choice but I had no other option.” She knew that although she didn’t speak English, her two brothers in Canada, one in Nova Scotia, would help her. “If I compared my experience with people who didn’t have any connections, it was easy. You need friends to help you navigate.” Over the next while the energetic and passionate Carmen Celina volunteered at Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia organizing resources; assisted a professor researching a women’s health project; worked in a Guatemalan handicrafts shop; attended gatherings about women’s health issues; studied English; presented her thesis research project at Saint Mary’s University; volunteered with the Canadian Mental Health Association; joined the Halifax Immigrant Women’s Association; coordinated conversation groups and became a School Settlement Worker at the YMCA.
But it was difficult for Carmen Celina to live in the moment. “I was either in the future, perfectly integrated in society with a house, car, everything – or in the past where I had professional status, friends, a woman in control.” With two Master’s degrees, returning to school to practice psychology here was not tempting. “We have naïve ideas of how it will be, but without them we wouldn’t immigrate. We never realize how overwhelming it is not to be able to communicate and convey complex thoughts.”
Carmen Celina became Family Violence and Cross-Cultural Coordinator and, except for one contract elsewhere, she has stayed at ISANS, purposefully pursuing the organization’s concern about immigrants’ mental health. Despite intentions of a brief stay, Canada is home. “I love Nova Scotia because I have met people with whom I have created communities with diverse interests. I have friends that supported my daughter and me.” Carmen Celina remarried and lives in a co-op where she also volunteers. Joining a neighbourhood knitting group made her feel part of the community. She drums with Samba Nova and meditates at Shambhala. Violeta attends NSCAD and makes jewelry.
Carmen Celina believes settlement is an endless process. “There are moments I feel totally settled and moments where I’m a newcomer again.” She loves that her job allows her to make a difference. “I’m so grateful to do this work. As we say in Spanish, I’m completely in my salsa!”