"I Am Not Alone:" Bernadette's Story

Taking twists and turns through Africa, Europe, the United States, and finally, Canada, Bernadette’s story is one of resilience.

Originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bernadette completed a Master’s degree in philosophy in Italy in 1987 as a Catholic nun. Upon completing her degree, she returned to the DRC, where she was employed in a variety of roles at religious educational institutions and a governmental agency working with economically vulnerable women and children. She says that, as a nun, her aspiration was always to help people.

In 2005, while working at a religious university, Bernadette came under government scrutiny after students staged a protest action against President Joseph Kabila, who was campaigning for re-election. Though she had not participated in the protest, she was accused of being involved due to her role at the university in student support services. Fearing for her safety, she made plans to leave the DRC to study human resources and specialized education on a scholarship in Belgium. After several years of study in Belgium, Bernadette longed to return to her family at home. However, a brief stay in the United States led to an uncertain future, due to immigration requirements. Unable to return to the DRC for fear of violence, her Belgian student visa expired, and her legal status in the US precarious, Bernadette made the courageous decision to press on. In December of 2016, she entered Canada as a refugee claimant, determined to make a life for herself here.

With no family in Canada and no place to stay, she spent the first several months living in a shelter, before finding a room in a shared house. It was rough going, but through a social worker at the East End Community Health Centre, she heard about New Circles. She was especially interested in the opportunity to volunteer and gain Canadian work experience. In March of 2017, Bernadette came to New Circles and soon after, began volunteering regularly in GLOW.

“[My first time going to GLOW] was amazing. Never have I seen this kind of support!” she said. “I could not afford much, but by shopping at New Circles, I saved so much money.”

GLOW was a great place to gain work experience, assisting the store manager with processing incoming donations, engaging with clothing donors, and working with other volunteers to sort clothing and stock the store. This experience will be a stepping stone to her future, she says. “[Employers] want Canadian experience. To change my future, I need to get experience and work on my English. In addition to new clothes and the chance to volunteer, New Circles helped with my language skills, references and resume.” Bernadette is now moving on to other work opportunities, and she says she “appreciates with all [her] heart” this support. “You’re helping newcomers to improve our lives, so we can bring something new to this country.”

Just as important is the sense of hope and human connection Bernadette found in Canada, and at New Circles. “From the day I came, I felt very welcome,” says Bernadette. “All my family is still in my country. But here, I am not alone. I found people to help me. If I’m in need, I can ask for help because I am accepted. In Canada, you respect the dignity of everyone.” It is this feeling that motivates her to rebuild her life.

New Circles' GLOW clothing service is the largest clothing bank in Toronto. We help 12,000 people of all ages annually.