January 17, 2009

By Lesley Ciarula Taylor, The Toronto Star

Users can go to loonlounge.com and sign up for free to get instant access to the immigration website's member-provided information.
Site uses social networking platform to give advice and create friendships for those moving to Canada.

Jenn Samu, who lives in the U.K., calls the new website Loon Lounge "the Facebook of Canadian immigration applicants ... very cool."

Nick_au is the online name of a Web writer from Ukraine, who uses Loon Lounge (loonlounge.com) as "a job search tool, which lets me stay tuned with the job opportunities in Canada. And one more important thing – I got new friends here."

Loon Lounge, which launched officially this week, is the brainchild of immigration lawyer David Cohen, who saw a need for a social networking site that uses common applications to create a worldwide chat room for people thinking of moving to Canada, people in the process of moving and people already here.

That last category, says Cohen, is the most difficult and important one. Getting Canadians, from native-born to new citizens, to give a helping hand is crucial.

Elham Doust Mohammadi, a 42-year-old who works in Toronto's accounting and finance industry, is a landed immigrant and signed up on Loon Lounge at the insistence of her sister, who's still in Iran, for the benefit of "my friends in Iran, if they need any help or information."

"To succeed, we need to get Canadians involved, people who arrived yesterday and people who were born here," Cohen says. "The Canadian population is a lot different than it was 20 years ago. And I find, generally, people will help out other people."

Though a recent analysis of what works for immigrants by the think-tank Public Policy Forum didn't study Loon Lounge in particular, author Winnie Wong points out that the few websites that are effective tools for newcomers involve Canadians rather than just immigrants, and are community-based rather than top-down.

Many of the 15,000 people on the nascent site, from 191 countries, have some connection to Cohen, who spent two years working on Loon Lounge. Others found it through clicking for information about Canada and recognized the site's social aspect, which was the appeal for Samu.

The site lets users join communities based on common ties such as home country or occupation, and can host subgroups for, say, cricket.

Samu and Mykola Stepanyuk, or Nick as he calls himself now, are settling in Toronto, as is Marianne Salari, a 30-year-old dentist from Serbia who says: "I hope that this page is going to bring positive energy specially for many who have been so disappointed by these changes in immigration policy."

The new Citizenship and Immigration Canada list of 38 priority jobs and language testing are the two hottest topics on Loon Lounge.

Dentistry isn't on the priority list, but Salari, who has three years' work experience, speaks fluent English and has 18 years of education, uses the site to connect with organizations in Canada. "I will never give up my dream to become a Canadian citizen. I think that I deserve a chance."

Online information about Canada isn't scarce, from CIC's own website to settlement agencies, professional organizations and new citizens passing on their experiences, but Loon Lounge stands out as a slick, interactive and well designed venue to draw in Canadians and those hoping to become Canadian.

Cohen keeps a low profile on the site, which is run by six people in his Montreal office and doesn't charge any fees or accept advertising. His own experience told him immigrants needed something more personal.

"I know our government means well, but their efforts are, well, oafish. The government can't afford to answer one-on-one questions, they can't help an engineer in Norway find someone in Toronto who can answer his questions or tell someone in Greece where to find Toronto's Greek neighbourhood."

Salari's interest is simple: "I will try to meet people with the same interest as mine but mostly I hope to find friends among people who are already in Canada."

"This is a very rich site for immigrants, to be networking with people of diverse culture background and professionals," says Matthew Adeyemi, a 36-year-old Nigerian IT worker who also wants to come to Toronto. He says one of the site's many benefits is "learning from mistakes of some immigrants."

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