How an Ethiopian Immigrant became Canada's most Esteemed Volunteer and Goodwill Ambassador
When Geza Wordofa, the founder of the Multicultural Association of Perth-Huron (MAPH), received a letter last year from Governor General David Johnston informing him he had won a 2016 Sovereign Medal for Volunteers, he had a hard time believing the news.
Even when he called Johnston’s office to confirm the letter had indeed been sent to the correct Geza Wordofa, the honour still didn’t seem real.
In fact, since Wordofa was unable to attend the Governor General’s Award ceremony last year to receive his medal in person, it wasn’t until this year’s ceremony on March 9 in London when the reality of this prestigious honour truly set in (see photo).
“I’m very blessed and I’m enjoying the recognition,” Wordofa said. “To be a volunteer is not easy, and sometimes very difficult. I’ve been involved, day-to-day, with newcomers (to Canada). What does it mean to be a refugee, what does it mean to be a newcomer or an immigrant? It can be good, but sometimes for them it’s very difficult.”
After Wordofa, an Ethiopian by birth and a former United Nations goodwill ambassador, emigrated from Russia to Canada to settle down with his wife Nicole in 2011, he quickly learned first-hand the hardships immigrants and refugees must go through to start a new life in a completely foreign country.
Whether it’s finding a job, shopping for groceries, obtaining a driver’s license or passport, navigating Canadian law, applying for citizenship, learning to recycle, or even something as seemingly simple as learning to use various kitchen appliances, adjusting to life in Canada can take a while. For some new immigrants, that process can be very confusing and often frustrating.
“When I came here from Russia, from Geneva, there was nothing for me. I had no job… there was not any service that gave me my paperwork,” Wordofa said.
Luckily, he had Nicole and the Canadians he met through his work with the UN to help him settle into his new country and his new home in Stratford, but for many immigrants and refugees, it’s not that simple. In September, 2011, only five months after he settled in Stratford, Wordofa founded MAPH, an organization that helps guide new immigrants through the resettlement process.
“We have money for them, we have a house, we have a couch, live. It’s not as simple as that. You give them money, they don’t know how to spend that money. So we give them guidance (for example) on how to eat properly, or to give them some advice (for whatever they need),” Wordofa said.
But without the support and effort put forth by Wordofa’s fellow volunteers in Stratford and the surrounding community, MAPH would have never been able to assist the immigrants and refugees in both Perth and Huron Counties who need that help and guidance most.
“I share this medal with my community and all of the newcomers. When I met the Governor General, I had no words. I said thank you for my community in Stratford who gave me this opportunity,” Wordofa said. “…I want to give back to my community through volunteerism. I want to give back for the community who helps newcomers. They run around for them, they give them rides, they take them to the hospital – I have a long list of people to call who are willing to help out. I love to serve for my community. I don’t expect anything in return.”
For more than five years, Wordofa has worked five days a week for MAPH without pay to better the lives of new immigrants and refugees. An immigrant himself and now a Canadian citizen, Wordofa and other volunteers like him share a unique perspective with those they help, allowing them to better understand the issues, both large and small, that prevent newcomers from living a full life in their new country.
When Wordofa first established MAPH, he was meeting with new immigrants in a coffee shop in downtown Stratford, but since then, thanks to a generous donation of space and resources by Loreena McKennit, MAPH now occupies several rooms in the basement of the Falstaff Family Centre on Waterloo Street, where volunteers have the ability to meet with families, provide them a safe and quiet space to discuss the problems they are dealing with, and determine the next steps in both solving those problems and making their lives in Canada as fulfilling as they possibly can be.
On a more personal note, after living for 15 years as an immigrant in Russia, where people of different skin colours and ethnic backgrounds are often viewed with suspicion and treated with outright hostility, Wordofa is thrilled to be living in a country where the government recognizes his efforts on equal footing with people of all backgrounds, races and religions. That notion was made abundantly clear to him at the awards ceremony in London last Thursday, where he had the chance to meet and speak with both Johnston and Ontario’s Lieutenant Governor, Elizabeth Dowdeswell, as well as many other dignitaries, politicians and service medal recipients.
“I’m equal as anybody. When you go in the coffee shop, you are also the same as anybody – everybody says hi even if they don’t know you,” Wordofa said. “… I am so lucky. We have to respect this country, we have to love Canada.”
Even before moving to Canada, Wordofa spent much of his life helping others, be that working to establish a soup kitchen in Moscow, securing clean drinking water for the people of Ethiopia, or donating toothpaste to new immigrants and refugees in Utah. In Canada, along with founding and working tirelessly for MAPH, Wordofa has also volunteered his time with non-profit groups such as the Salvation Army and The United Way.
For his lifetime of volunteer work, in the past Wordofa has been honoured with the Ontario Government’s Newcomer Champion Award, the Governor General’s Caring Canadian Award and the Top 25 Canadian Immigrant Award. Now, he can add the 2016 Sovereign Medal for Volunteers to that list, a medal which he plans on wearing proudly at this year’s 150th Canada Day celebration. (Source: Stratford Beacon Herald)