Calgary settlement agency celebrates 25 ’emotional’ years at its airport reception centre

Calgary Catholic Immigration Society (CCIS) has welcomed 120,000 refugees, immigrants and temporary foreign workers into the prairie region since it opened its reception centre at the Calgary International Airport in 1997.

At a celebration this week at YYC, CEO Fariborz Birjandian reflected on his efforts to launch the centre and try to seek border security clearance for his foreign-born staff all those years ago.

Birjandian says one staff member was from Baghdad, Iraq, another was from Kabul, Afghanistan, and he, their boss, was from Iran on the security application form.

“And I said to myself, ‘What guy is looking at this going, these are three people from hot zones, and I am going to give them security to go to the airport?'” said Birjandian.

“That was so funny for me.” 

But they did approve it, kicking off a long-term relationship between CCIS and the Airport Authority with an office on the main floor of the building.

“The services you provide are essential, the impact you have is very consequential, we are very proud to provide a space and to be here to help in anyway we can,” said Bob Sartor, president of the Calgary Airport Authority.

Two men stand together holding a plaque on stage at a ballroom in the Marriott Hotel at the Calgary International Airport.
CCIS CEO Fariborz Birjandian, left, and YYC CEO Bob Sartor celebrate a 25-year partnership between the two organizations with the airport reception centre. (Sam Obadero/Motif Photography)

A couple of decades and several crises later, staff say each story is unique and moving.

“It doesn’t matter how many of these we have throughout the years, it’s always very emotional,” said Bozana Sljuka,  settlement manager with CCIS.

Sljuka recalls a recent reunification between a boy and his mother who arrived on a charter flight from Afghanistan.

She says the boy was waiting at the airport with flowers when he spotted his mom whom he hadn’t seen in several years.

“He was so nervous and he was already crying then when he saw her he fell down on her feet and hugged her and kissed her and we’re all crying together,” said Sljuka.

Of the thousands of people ushered through the centre — and either stayed in Calgary or moved into different communities — many have been refugees fleeing political, social, gender, and racial persecution and violence.

A woman holds an Ipad while standing on the main floor of the Calgary airport as she gets ready to help welcome newly arriving Ukrainians.
Hanna Vakhovska arrived from Ukraine in October and now offers hope to other Ukrainians as a CCIS staff member at the reception centre at the Calgary International Airport. (Colleen Underwood)

And wars.

Hanna Vakhovska arrived from Mariupol, Ukraine, in mid-October with her husband.

“I [was] afraid of everything, I didn’t know what to do, I was so shy,” said Vakhovska.

Now, weeks later, she’s landed a job with CCIS welcoming other Ukrainians who arrive daily at the airport.

“It’s like destiny,” said Vakhovska, “I want to help them and I also want to give to them this feeling of hope, this feeling for start of new, good life.”

Sljuka says it’s important to have a friendly face and a guide at the airport to assist newcomers.

“Being at airport even for myself today can be intimidating following signs, following security, you don’t know where you’re going,” said Sljuka.

She says it’s a lot of work ensuring people have what they need, whether that’s food, clothing, or the right paperwork, but it’s a job she feels privileged to have even after more than 20 years working in settlement in both Lethbridge and Calgary.

“Not everybody sees that and we’re very privileged and humbled and … we keep it close to our heart.”

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