The men come in slowly, some in small clusters and some on their own. There are 10 of them in the group today and this is likely the first time any of them have interacted with the Sexuality Education Resource Centre (SERC MB). They are here for the Newcomer Men’s Health workshop, which they have likely heard about from a variety of community partners that we work with in recruiting (see my previous blog- Where Does This Love Come From for more information on SERC recruitment). Like our parent groups I have written about previously, this workshop is funded by Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada and is part of the overall settlement initiatives in Manitoba.
The group starts with a round table where each of the participants introduce themselves, how long they have been in this country, and share something they like or find challenging in Canada. Some have been here longer than others, from as little as 5 months to as long as 5 years, and it is evident that for some English is still a challenge. All of these men happen to be from Nepal and are able to help each other with the language; their immediate camaraderie is evident. They also all agree on what is most challenging about Canada: the cold and the snow, not surprising given where they have arrived from. They like the summers and the majority talk about the people of Canada as being its biggest strength; the stories they share about the friendliness and helpfulness they are greeted with, are heartwarming to hear as a Canadian. Our group leader tonight, Blandine, was once a newcomer herself and also shares similar experiences about Canadians, and winter!
The group is provided food and bus tickets, Blandine goes over offering them these items and where the bathrooms are etc. A spirited discussion breaks out in Nepalese between 2 participants: afterwards it is explained to us that one of the men, who shyly goes to the table where the food is being stored, has only been here 5 months and has never tried pizza, so he told him to try it. We are informed later that he is a big fan now. I was actually reflecting on this moment last night when my partner and I were standing at a bakery counter at the Forks and the couple in front of us was asking the person behind the counter to explain a Nanaimo bar to them. Sometimes we simply forget how ingrained culture is in simple parts of life, like what we eat and what we call it.
The topic for the evening will be challenging. The goal is to help establish basic knowledge of the standard parts and workings of the male body and issues that may arise, as well as to encourage these men to take care of their bodies, and those that they are intimate with. After reviewing the basics of anatomy in English, to establish a baseline so they are able to identify issues when seeking medical attention, there is already a great deal of discussion in both English and Nepalese. Over the break, one of the men and I begin to chat, he is one of the participants who has not been in Canada long but already has a great deal of English. He tells me that in his country it is very unusual to talk about these things and it takes some getting used to. Blandine and I notice that many of the questions come to us during the break, away from the group.
In the second half Blandine focuses on sexually transmitted infections (STIs) starting with some statistics about transmission rates, including the rising diagnosis of newcomers between 15 and 29 who are being impacted by STIs in Manitoba. This is of great interest to the men who all agree they really have limited knowledge of STIs. It clear however, that they have all heard of HIV and are very concerned about this STI in particular.
Blandine spends a fair amount of time answering questions and dispelling myths around HIV. Of particular concern to the group is that the prolific mosquito population of Winnipeg may transmit the disease. Blandine reassures the group that it cannot be transmitted by mosquitoes, or kissing, shaking hands etc.… she also talks about the reality of the new world of HIV, that it is no longer a death sentence and the importance of getting tested, as early identification can reduce the long term impact and transmission. There appears to be 3 main objectives over the 2 hours we have:
- 1) Know your body and recognize when it needs help
- 2) Protect yourself and your partners (condoms and safer sex supplies)
- 3) Get tested regularly and encourage your partner to as well
One of the men asks, “How do I know? How do I know if someone has an STI?”, and Blandine reviews the facts. The reality is you don’t, you usually cannot see it with your eyes, and the only way to be safe is to ask your partner if they have been tested and use safer sex supplies.
As the group winds down for the evening, Blandine talks about what will happen next week in part two of the workshop. I can see that the group has really come a long way in just this short period; there is a great deal of interest and questions. I also see I have learned a lot in this session, about what we should be thinking about, when we are trying to talk about difficult things with newcomers, and how we may be able to do improve upon this, each time.