When Shamima Parvin moved to the Bangladesh capital of Dhaka to get her degree in pharmacy, she sometimes felt as though she was being swallowed whole by the big-city concrete that surrounded her. Now living in Edmonton, Alberta, with her husband, Kazi Hossain, she still sees concrete when she looks out her window. But she also sees trees and hears birds. And she marvels at the endless Alberta sky.
“You have all the facilities of the city, but in the meantime you can enjoy nature,” Parvin told the Edmonton Journal. “It’s everywhere.”
The couple is among several new Canadians featured in a documentary by Edmonton filmmaker Brandy Yanchyk, set to air on OMNI on Sunday (Dec. 2). “Nature’s Invitation” follows immigrants in Calgary and Edmonton as they explore Alberta’s wilderness through nature programs offered by Parks Canada and Alberta Parks.
In a bit of serendipity, Yanchyk came upon the programs when she moved back to Canada after working in England for several years, keen to experience Alberta in all its glory.
“I never went camping or backpacking as a kid,” says Yanchyk, who grew up in Ontario. “So when I moved here with my English boyfriend in 2009, I just decided I wanted to learn to camp. That’s when I found these learn-to-camp programs for immigrants. I thought: ‘This is perfect; I make films about new immigrants,’ so I pitched the idea for a documentary to OMNI to see if they were interested. And they were.”
In 2010, Yanchyk produced, wrote and directed “Brooks: The City of 100 Hellos,” a documentary about how immigration challenges a cowboy town. And in 2008, she shot “Desert to Ice,” which followed the lives of nine Palestinian refugees from Iraq who were resettled in Iceland. It aired on BBC.
Yanchyk and her crew spent the summer of 2011 tagging along with immigrants on adventures that took them to lakes, rivers and parks across Alberta, including Banff, Jasper, Elk Island and Waterton Lakes. She found all of her interview subjects for the hour-long film through the Edmonton Immigrant Services Association and the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers (EMCN).
EMCN director of language services Judy Silver says the agency has been involved in the nature programs for three years and has so far taken immigrants on nearly a dozen different excursions. The majority had never camped before and for many, it was their first trip outside city limits. “Lots of them don’t have vehicles, so they have no way to get out of the city. And they don’t speak very much English.”
For some, the barriers went far beyond economics or logistics.“A lot of them come from horrendous backgrounds, and have spent time in refugee camps,” says Silver, “so there’s a real fear associated with being out in the country that they needed to get over. Once they did, they found it to be really rich and rewarding to connect with nature in a positive way.”
Parvin and her husband found out about the nature programs through Edmonton Immigrant Services. They went on a four-hour rafting trip down the North Saskatchewan River through RiverWatch.
“We have boats in my country, but I had never been on a raft before,” says Parvin. “It was very exciting, to actually be on the water. We are planning next to go whitewater rafting, now that we have had that experience.”
The trips weren’t without challenges, however, especially when it came to the weather. Yanchyk says a mother and daughter from Colombia spent a sleepless night in their tent, discovering first-hand how cold it can get at night in the mountains, even during the summer.
“You know what, though,” says Yanchyk. “The next day, we went to the Columbia Icefields and that turned out to be the highlight of their trip.”
Silver says another overnight outing to Dinosaur Provincial Park turned ugly when a severe rainstorm blew tents down in the middle of the night and generally wreaked havoc in the camp.
“We had to get out and secure all the tents,” she says. “Some of the moms and girls were crying. Funny thing is, though, the next morning it had calmed down and everyone came out of their tents with big smiles on their faces. They were so proud. It was like: ‘I’ve done it. I am a Canadian now.’”