"We want this place to be your light after great darkness:" Laylah Rahmeh. Photo by Sean McCullum.

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Tides of Change: New Beginnings in New Brunswick, is a project of the graduating journalism class at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, N.B.

The project began with an idea that we called “newcomers.”

We knew that New Brunswick’s population is growing older, and depending on the year, is either stagnate or in decline. The implications of this demographic deficit are fewer people in the workforce, a languishing economy, and more senior citizens who need support from government health and social services. It’s an issue that keeps New Brunswick political leaders and policy makers up at night, or if it doesn’t, it should.

Population growth is the most important policy issue in New Brunswick today.

In the beginning, we wanted to tell stories of newcomers from all over the world who have made homes in this province; the face of the province was changing, albeit slowly, and this was a story that needed to be told.

Our class began reporting on newcomer stories just as the first wave of hundreds of new Syrian families arrived in our province.

This changed everything, and the project took on dimensions we couldn’t have imagined when we began the work. We found stories of remarkable people, and a province living in a time of profound change and new beginnings.

Hemmings House Pictures recently produced a new video for the New Brunswick Multi-Cultural Council  as a service for Syrian families who are arriving in our cities every day.

The video is narrated by Layla Rahmeh, a courageous and articulate woman who came to New Brunswick four years ago from Syria. Rahmeh speaks directly to Syrian families with a message built around the New Brunswick motto inscribed on our coat of arms: Spem Reduxit, Hope Restored.

“For more than 200 years, people from around the world have escaped poverty, starvation and persecution and found hope here, “ Rahmeh says. “For many of you, hope was almost lost. Here in New Brunswick it can be restored. We want this place to be your light after great darkness.”

She goes on to describe the extraordinary natural beauty of the province, our outstanding health care and education systems, our safe and welcoming cities, our abundant resources and open spaces, our low cost of living and our cultural diversity.

She points out that New Brunswick is about half the size of Syria with a population of less than 760,000. This is obviously a place of great potential and opportunity, she says.

Now some perspective. Syria’s population before the war was about 22 million. The population now is about 16 million. There are about 4.6 million Syrian refugees abroad, and about 6.6 million internally displaced people. A quarter of a million people have died in this most brutal of wars.

From 1987 to 1997, when former premier Frank McKenna directed all of his considerable energy toward public affairs in New Brunswick, his private agenda was to change the way New Brunswick was regarded in the world, and more importantly to change the way New Brunswickers thought about themselves.

Some years ago, when I was researching a book about McKenna’s life and politics, political scientist and pollster George Perlin told me that he watched attitudes change as he tracked public opinion during these years.

Leadership, said Perlin, was about persuasion. “You could see it changing,” Perlin said. “He made people feel better about what was happening in New Brunswick. He helped the people of New Brunswick see what they had the potential to be.”

I recommend that every New Brunswicker watch and listen to Layla Rahmeh’s message to our Syrian newcomers. Her narration is a rare and beautiful expression of how our province is viewed by newcomers, and by a people who have seen their place in the world destroyed by a terrible civil war.

Our hope is that this series of stories will be the start of a larger conversation about new beginnings in New Brunswick, and perhaps change the way we see our province and our future.

I am grateful for the assistance of visiting Irving Chair in Journalism Ros Guggi, a veteran newspaper editor who made this work possible, and for the hard work and talent of our students.

Philip Lee, March 2016

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