December 5, 1992, is a day that Anna Gregus will always remember: she became one of ISANS first settlement workers. “I knew this is the job for me. I had the skills and the experience that I could use. It was one of the best days in Canada; I was so happy.”
As refugees from what is now Slovakia, Anna and her family moved to Halifax after a year in Austria, two years in Ontario and eight years in Newfoundland. Anna had an economics degree but didn’t speak English when she left her homeland. She studied education while her husband worked as a doctor in Woody Point, Newfoundland. “My love of learning kept me going,” she says. She taught math and computers there, but was happy to move on from teaching.
Anna employed her advocacy and counselling skills, and her knowledge of mental health issues, to assist new arrivals, soon becoming manager of the settlement team. Although over the years many large groups of refugees arrived in Nova Scotia, one of her biggest challenges was Operation Parasol, a sudden airlift of people from embattled Kosovo to Canadian Forces Base Greenwood in 1999. Anna coordinated the establishment of a refugee camp in nearby Aldershot, as well as another at CFB Halifax Windsor Park. “It happened so quickly that people were shell-shocked. I remember a lady who still had slippers on her feet and hair rollers in her pocket.” She and her team worked hard for weeks as the program received special federal funding for extensive counseling and settlement support.
I meet my former clients and they still remember the first day we met. You stay in the minds and hearts of people.
Anna was working with Metropolitan Immigrant Settlement Association (MISA), when it joined with Halifax Immigrant Learning Centre (HILC), an organization that offered English classes to new arrivals, to create ISANS. “We were working closely together. It made sense to join.” Anna still regards her position as a dream come true. “It was a wonderful working environment.” Because many staff members are refugees and immigrants, she feels they share a strong bond with their clients. Anna even completed a social work degree in the evenings to – as she describes it – find more tools to work with. Now retired, her commitment to ISANS and refugees continues as she volunteers on the refugee committee.
Anna is also working with daughter Emily, a dietician student, in a volunteer project at ISANS offering nutrition classes to new arrivals, using produce from community gardens. A life-long learner, Anna is building new expertise foraging for edible wild plants. And because of her concerns about poverty and injustice, she has also participated in two solidarity tours to Paraguay and Bolivia with an NGO called Chalice. “People take care of each other as they have limited resources and government help. I was so impressed.” Retirement, she notes, is keeping her as busy as when she was working. Her husband continues to work at the Dartmouth Medical Centre while two daughters live in Ottawa – Michele, editor of Rabble.ca, and Andrea, a speech therapist.
Anna left her mark at ISANS through her passionate work in settlement. “I meet my former clients and they still remember the first day we met. You stay in the minds and hearts of people.” Anna believes the organization is vital for newcomers. “It not only saves you time with practicalities, but it gives you a strong sense of belonging.”