By Djami Diallo The Afro News New Westminster
The bright yellow walls and the thatched roofs that hung above the reception desks at the Centre of Integration for African Immigrants (CIAI) quickly caught me eye. The décor took me back to my roots almost instantaneously. Pictures, paintings and colorful cloths on the walls depicting wildlife, everyday people and scenes anchored me to a place that despite its distance carries the stamp of ‘home’. I certainly felt at home after receiving such a warm welcome from Executive Director Paul Mulangu, who sat with me for an interview following the inauguration of the newly renovated centre.
Support poured out for Mulangu on July 23rd, 2009, the official opening of the centre. The event was attended by New Westminster’s Senator Yonah Martin and Mayor Wayne Wright, Mission’s Mayor James Atebe, MP Peter Julian, and even welcomed Halifax’s Senator Donald H. Oliver to name a few. This could be seen as a new beginning with only good things to come from the CIAI, but it is also an enormous boost to the reputation of the centre.
I first heard of Paul Mulangu at an event held in honor of Black History Month; an exhibition hosted by Dr. Afua Cooper whose aim was to showcase Black communities in British Columbia from their beginnings in the late fifties to the present day. His profile came up among one of the many leaders in the Black community who are trying to make a difference. Originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mulangu came to
Canada as a single father with no knowledge of English. Without the slightest bit of hesitation about it and perhaps a hint of a smile on his lips, he tells me that-next to politician and national hero Nelson Mandela- his mother is his inspiration. In both, he admires strength and the ability to overcome adversity. I realized right there that this is why everyone in the Black community has such deep admiration and respect for the man. He turned his own story of struggle for integration into something that is benefiting an entire community. If it is hard to believe all we have to do is look at his centre.
The CIAI, which is funded through both the provincial and federal governments, now stands at 8, 500 square feet (compared to a previous 2,000 square feet) at the intersection of Carnarvon and Blackie in New Westminster. And it’s not only its size that’s commendable: with one part dedicated to professional training and the other to community service, the centre possesses better facilities including an event hall, several classrooms, a resource centre, media and computer labs. Spearheaded by Paul eight years ago the CIAI responded to a void in the system, filling a lack of resources for newcomers and immigrants. It is the first and only multilingual centre of its kind in BC, which caters to the province’s diversified Black community. Its aim to ‘make the visible minority less invisible’ is simple and is achieved through professional and language training; as well as counseling and assistance with issues of immigration and integration. And with programs for seniors and youth, there is a place for everyone. The CIAI seeks to give youth the chance to find a path in life and get involved with their communities. Undoubtedly, this is at the heart of the matter for Mulangu, who says, “Youth involvement is part of integration, information [and] belonging.” In the same vein he spoke very candidly about the need for the Black community to come together consistently in support of its members. Although he has met many successes, he remarked
how hard it has been to collaborate with the members of his community because he says, “people don’t see what brings us together, [don’t] focus on [the] progress [we’ve made].”
I was slightly taken aback by the man’s honesty with regards to this matter, but I quickly realized that Mulangu was only picking up on a common tendency we all have regardless
of race or ethnicity, to see only what makes us differ from our neighbors. Mulangu has been working against this, trying to give immigrants a point of integration within their communities.
Mulangu, for whom community involvement is the cornerstone of integration, remarks on the changing demographics of his clientele. He says that he sees a multiplicity of faces walk through the centre each day. The diversification does not stop there, but extends to the center’s staff who can pinpoint their origins to different places on the globe. Mulangu is proud of this, providing a visual reminder for any observant visitor to the centre- leading the way to the offices; a large world map displays the various parts of Africa, Europe and the Caribbean that the centre represents.
The financial slump we’ve seen lately has made things hard for Paul, driving the cost of running the centre up, but he sees a silver lining. He comments, “The economy affected us in a good way, because it’s attracted people to the centre, who realize they need to build on their skills.” Ultimately, Paul comments on the impact the centre has had and continues to have on people’s lives. The CIAI is helping us build on much more than just skills. It is an open door building ties across the Black community, serving as a point of integration, bringing us together in celebration of a culture whose richness speaks for itself, and fostering a sense of belonging for everyone who walks through its doors.
For more information on the Centre of Integration for African Immigrants, visit: http://www.ciia-ciai.com
Hours of Operation are Monday to Friday, 8:30am-9:00pm.