By: Asfia Yassir in Toronto, ON
Grandparents can be gems to have as part of any family unit. Regardless of their day-to-day contributions, their mere presence can have a positive effect on all those around them.
Within a family household, this could range from eliminating loneliness, creating bonds or conveying culture through generations. But for many immigrants, in a practical sense, grandparents play a unique role in offsetting the financial burden of childcare.
For Ritu Ganesh, the cost of daycare was more than what they could afford. The fact that her 18-month-old daughter would not eat or even talk to anyone because of how unhappy she was at the daycare, only added to her distress.
“Having my mother over for a visit and later my mother-in-law who moved with us in Canada, was like stirring happiness in the family. I did not have to pay for the daycare anymore which would take more than half of what our monthly mortgage was,” Ganesh recalls.
The family had been in the midst of a financial crunch following their decision to buy a house so work had become imperative. When Ganesh’s mother arrived in Canada, however she was able to look after her daughter.
The number of grandparents across the country is growing at a significantly faster rate than the general population. With the ageing population of Canada, grandparents are playing a critical role in their family’s lives as caregiver, mentors, and spiritual guides.
Benefits on Both Sides
Many immigrants are bound by their culture to take the financial responsibilities of their parents despite living in separate countries. When such parents move in with their sons or daughters, it can also help cut expenses related to monthly remittances.
Living with a child’s family is a preferred choice for many elderly parents as they don’t have to go through the empty nest syndrome.
However, it requires a lot of effort and courage for grandparents to settle down in a new place. In addition they must overcome the nostalgia they experience while living in Canada.
“Life is quite happening back home. I miss all the cultural festivities and the fun we used to have with my relatives,” mentions Sumitha Ganesh who is living here with her son’s family. It is because of this nostalgia that Ganesh travels back home every year to reunite with all that she yearns for.
More grandparents in immigrant households
For immigrants still attempting to adapt to their new “Canadian lives”, the multi-generational family system becomes a means of solace. More than 1 in 5 recent immigrants (21%) lived with their grandchildren in 2011, compared with three per cent of the Canadian-born population in the same age group.
In single-parent households, the demand put on the sole income earner, can become overwhelming at times. The trials of migrating to a new country are magnified compared to when both parents are present.
Azra Riffat has been taking care of her family, including her mother, as the sole breadwinner. As a mother of two teenage sons supporting her ailing mother, it was increasingly difficult just to stay afloat. She took up evening and night jobs because her mother could not stay alone at home during the day.
“With my job we were just making our ends meet but thanks to the disability allowances of my mother which helped us as it contributed to our monthly rental expense,” recalls Azra. She further adds that her trials could have been reduced if the government allowed some compensation for caregivers of disabled citizens which is the case in many European countries like the UK.
For immigrants in particular, it is crucial to have the moral and emotional support of family as they begin their lives in a new country.
However, having an elderly parent in the home can also be stressful on younger generations. Old age comes with its own impediments in terms of health, requiring continuing care and emotional support.
Ashok and Meera* got married at a later stage in their lives and do not have children. Ashok’s mother, who is a dementia patient, lives with the couple as opposed to a retirement home. The family, in spite of their good financial standing, is also able to save on what would have been additional costs. Ashok adds that taking care of elderly parents teaches compassion and patience, which in turn creates a more emotionally grounded society.
“I decided to take care of my mother not because we cannot afford the fortune which old home facilities cost, but because there is love and care to show when you are living together as family,” he explains.
The couple feels happy to have their mother staying with them. “There is no loneliness at home and I enjoy her company,” says Meera. Although at times Meera feels that her movement is somewhat restricted, they are able to find time to vacation and get away through the help of Ashok’s sister.
The reality of multi-generational households is more complex compared to conventional family units. However, for many immigrants, the benefits of having these family members around far outweighs the negatives.
Parenthood is a journey of countless sacrifices as well as phenomenal devotion. Yet despite these untiring efforts, it seems that even in their old age, these parents may still have more to offer. In their support of the next generation, they become a source of relief for the entire family. While their children care for them an endless life cycle is continued in their new Canadian homes.
*Names changed for confidentiality.
This piece is part of the "Ethnic Women as Active Participants in Ontario" series.
By: Tazeen Inam in Toronto, ON
Canadian literature continues to diversify as more stories look to include a wider range of content set locally and abroad. Language barriers, migration trauma, cultural discrepancies and family responsibilities; women authors of diaspora are defying the odds, breaking through different obstacles to have their voices heard.
Ayelet Tsabari and Fartumo Kusow are two examples of determined women whose journeys outline what so many must overcome to become Canadian authors.
Breaking through Language Barriers
Ayelet Tsabari, who is from Israel, worked as a Hebrew journalist until she came to Canada at the age of 25. Writing, she believes, completes her. But in what was once a strong suit, language now became a challenge, pushing Tsabari to stop writing altogether. She could speak and read English, however it took her about eight years to gain the confidence to start writing.
Tsabari’s development started with her enrollment in a writing program, which she coupled with Canadian content she would read. As time passed, English began to flow into her work more naturally.
Tapping into her long lost passion, she began to create original pieces in the hopes of being published. But, to no avail as her lack of success prompted one of her teachers to suggest she read books other than Canadian literature.
“I realized that it’s not just language but it’s your heritage and even your mother tongue are still in you when you are writing in a new language. So certain things didn’t work for the publishers,” Tsabari explains.
Tsabari broadened her scope and soon she was reading literature from an array of multicultural writers. This broke the prison that had withheld her imagination, allowing her to finally express her voice.
“I just thought that if I started writing with that in my mind, just be you and do what you are and that’s what ended up getting me published,” she says.
Her dream came to fruition when her first book, "The Best Place on Earth", was published in 2013. The collection of short stories challenges the connection of spiritual heritage with modern life. Met with good reviews, it went on to win several distinctions, including the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and the New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice. Feeding off her first book’s momentum, she is now working on her second. In addition, she is also currently working with immigrant writers at the Toronto Public Library to improve their writing skills.
Fartumo Kusow was born to a farmer’s family in Somalia, as the seventh child. From a young age, she had difficulties establishing social connections with her peers and preferred to write instead.
“Instead of socializing with them I always had a notebook in my hand, that my father gave me and I would write in the notebook,” Kusow recalls.
As per Somali tradition, she married young, becoming a wife at the age of 16. Subsequently, this was also the same year her first fictional story was published in the national newspaper, where she worked.
Her husband had a job in the Middle East, which kept them financially stable. But when the civil war started in 1990, she was forced to leave. Already pregnant with her third child, she immigrated to Canada with her then-husband and two children.
Holding onto her dreams, Kusow knew that she wanted to become an author.
Unfortunately, Somali is her first language, Arabic her second. And due to war, she had little to no transcripts that could prove her credentials. However, she didn’t give up, completing her Bachelor’s in English before going on to a teaching program in Windsor. She has now been teaching since 2000.
Despite her successes, war trauma combined with move factors led to a failed marriage. She was left with no choice but to put her dream on hold as she filled the role of breadwinner for herself and her five children.
As she supported the household, her inner writer continued to itch at her until she resumed writing in 2011.
“When the kids are bit older and my career and my profession is [a] little more stable, I decided to spend an hour a day just to write something,” states Kusow.
Perseverance trumps Rejection
Nothing could stop her, not even the 104 rejections could dare be a hurdle to her dream. Though she finished her fictional piece in about three years, it did not garner much publisher interest. Sleepless nights turned into frustration as she pondered the reasoning behind her struggles. Until she came to the realization that the rejections were not personal but rather that publishing was simply a business.
With this in mind, she persevered, eventually getting published in 2017, when she produced "Tale of a Boon’s Wife".
Reviews speak to Kusow’s ability to clearly depict the issues stemming from the traditional Somali caste system, while simultaneously detailing the sufferings of the country’s civil war.
Kusow’s children are very proud of her and look up to her as a stronghold of leadership.
Though it has not been long since Canadian literature has started promoting more diverse content, its clear the industry is moving in the right direction. Several initiatives such as the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD) constantly take steps to ensure progress continues.
While both Tsabari and Fartamo are giving back to the community in the form of teaching, it is important to provide aspiring writers with the opportunities to develop their skills. Through mentorships and training the next generation of writers will make an even bigger impact on Canada’s literary landscape.
This piece is part of the "Ethnic Women as Active Participants in Ontario" series.
by: Sukaina Jaffer in Brampton, ON
It is difficult to replicate how an immigrant feels when they arrive in the country of their adoption. Imagine wearing summer clothing all year long and then being plopped on to a snowbank the next second. How would you feel when everything from the aroma of your food and the sound of your prayers, to the clothing on your back to your very employment status is re-arranged? How do women cope when their language is a barrier?
Across Ontario, women are making adjustments to ensure they are in a position to succeed in a new land.
For Hedaya AlDaleel who immigrated from Singapore in April 2016, her family found the weather quite daunting. Wearing winter gear was not something they were familiar with coming from warmer climates. “Our first winter was tough, the kids loved the snow, but I dreaded walking or driving in it,” admits AlDaleel.
In addition, upon arrival financial limitations also proved a challenge as they looked to adapt to their new lives. “The first few months are the hardest, with total uncertainty and no clear vision of the future, it was a very stressful period,” she says. “We were blessed that my husband found a job a few months after we arrived, but the idea of a career ‘downgrade’ will continue to be a struggle.”
Initially, AlDaleel set out by renting a space within a Hair Salon & Spa so she could open her own massage practice. Using the Dorn-Method she treated patients with neck, shoulder and back pain. Although the approach is safe and pain-free, it is not covered by most insurance policies and is very uncommon in Canada. Thus, through various struggles, the business eventually closed within months.
“Having no network or connections, social circle or support group around me, made it hard to grow a customer base,” recalls AlDaleel. Unfazed, she enrolled in a Global Business course at the Newcomer’s Centre of Peel to familiarize herself with different strategies.
The material helped her in “understanding the economy, taxation, resource management, marketing and business communication as well as networking.” Working with three advisors, she was able to go over content that was applicable to her interests. “[It] was a great learning experience [which] gave me the foundation to build on,” AlDaleel continues.
Discrimination has also been cited by some academics as a key cultural barrier for newcomers. Dr. Soma Chatterjee is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at York University, she explains, “The idea that mainstream Canadian ways are more progressive than [the] rest of the world's. Many immigrant women I know of are under pressure to 'measure up' to the dominant standards.”
She notes that newcomers may face discrimination when they are refused housing or asked offensive questions about the kind of food they cook when applying for rent. This type of experience may force new immigrants to change some of their most deeply held cultural values.
Furthermore, not all immigrants have an easy time adjusting, especially if language is a barrier. As was the case with Esraa Ali whose biggest challenge, upon arrival from Iraq, was learning English. An issue that is only magnified with statistics that show over 70 per cent of immigrants as having a mother tongue other than English or French.
While Ali has a Bachelor of Science in Biology back in Iraq, her current part-time jobs include working as a lunchroom monitor and supply teacher in a private school. She prefers the reduced hours so that she is able to spend more time with her kids. Joining the 32 per cent of middle-aged women that have made the same decision to care for their children.
Sadaf Hussain, a Pakistani native who immigrated to Toronto in August 2016 from Dubai found the adjustment particularly challenging. She came alone with her two children because her husband was still working in the Emirates.
Hussain mentions that one of the greatest challenge she faced was leaving behind her loved ones. The busy bustle of life in Canada, lead to loneliness within the first few months. A feeling that only intensified in winters that offered shorter days and less to do outdoors.
She also grew frustrated with the constant searches for basic amenities, often travelling to multiple destinations before finding what she needed.
“We spent hours going through every single supermarket before we figured out where things were sold,” she explains. In addition, making it even harder, she would often evaluate the value of goods by converting local prices into the currency used in her native land.
Even routine activities such as driving in the snow presented challenges, having never lived in a region with snow.
She misses the stronger sense of community she found elsewhere. “I miss the sound of the call to prayers five times a day. I miss the way Ramadan (Islamic month of fasting) was so festive and how the entire United Emirates seemed to break their fast together (a cannon would sound).”
Slowly, she has learned to overcome her initial difficulties but continues to adjust as she spends more time in the country she now calls home.
Sense of community
For many immigrants, retaining their sense of cultural identity is essential.
Having lived in a number of countries, AlDaleel was prepared for the diversity that exists in Canada. She constantly educates her children about their cultural roots. “It’s important for our children to maintain their identity, as they learn to navigate their way into their new Canadian life,” she says.
Despite the adjustments they have been forced to make, both women are grateful for the opportunity they are now presented with.
Al Daleel goes on, “there’s so much room for personal growth and career change. I have learnt that in Canada, the job you do, doesn’t define who you are, or who you are striving to be. Unlike many other places around the world, you can dream big here...”
This piece is part of the "Ethnic Women as Active Participants in Ontario" series.
by: Isabel Inclan in Toronto, ON
It is no secret Canada is aiming to increase its immigration numbers over the next three years. The Liberal government will look to hit a target annual intake of 340,000 new immigrants by 2020. A number that stretches far beyond what the country has been able to reach within the past couple of decades, but still falls short of the 450,000 figure that was recommended by the federal government’s advisory council.
Immigration Minister, Ahmed Hussein, has pointed to the growing demand for skilled labour. However, with data that shows there are former engineers, doctors and architects working as cab drivers, there are those that are seemingly already falling through the cracks in today’s job market.
Eugenia Gomez, once a researcher in infectology at the National Institute of Nutrition of Mexico, she now cleans residential homes in Toronto.
“My job was to work with the reagents, processed samples and special solution[s] for the scientific studies,” she recalls during one of her breaks. A specialist on a stomach bacterium called Helicobacter pylori, she has had trouble finding work in her field, despite credentials from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Prior to her current position, she worked at a local Tim Hortons. A graduate of Chemical Pharmaceutical Biology, she hopes to one day return to her previous career.
After a brief pause to lace up her sneakers — ideal shoes for six hours of cleaning — she heads back to finish off her shift.
Give me a break
Others offer similar experiences in their job searches. Maria Alvarez, who was a regional sales director at an international cosmetology company based out of Latin America, has faced the same issue. With over 10 years of experience in business development, sales training and leadership roles, she has been unable to find anything that matches her skill set. And not for lack of trying, since her arrival in 2014, she has held numerous positions as a housekeeper, overnight cleaning lady, night attendant, and concierge.
“I have distributed my curriculum vitae (resumé) with many people, but until now nobody called me. I just need one opportunity to show my skills as saleswoman”, she says.
Looking for a better way to make ends meet she finally decided to give driving for Uber a try, which she still does to this day.
“The income as a driver is not too bad if you are alone and work full time. In the last year and a half, I have made six thousand trips and my rating is 4.85 stars of 5,” Alvarez boasts. Although it is not what she envisioned, she stands proudly behind the fact that she can provide for herself working nine-hour shifts six days out of the week.
As a small sample of the female talent that have gone unrecognized, these women provide insight into the growing issue of “Canadian experience” that most immigrants lack.
Paola Gomez, founder of the Network of Latina Women in Canada, maintains that although many Latina women are grateful for the opportunity presented by living in this country, there can be a steep price. For those with extensive experience or higher educations in their home countries it can be difficult to find work within the same stream, which usually reduces them to survival jobs.
Misperception of Canada
In some instances, Canada’s reputation can actually hurt those who over-estimate the reach of the developmental programs in place. Claudia*, who immigrated from Mexico, explains that she was under the impression it would be easier to find employment once she moved.
“I wanted to be independent of my family. I thought it will be easier to find a job in Canada, similar to what I had in my country, but it wasn't,” she says.
Previously a manager of a bank teller division, she still remembers how hard she pushed herself to climb the rungs. Now a cleaner, she spends her days mop in hand, moving around various residential and commercial buildings. To make matters worse, her supervisors are extremely unpleasant and a portion of her pay goes to a placement agency.
Maria Alvarez was able to build a career based on her professional experience abroad without a post-secondary education. She argues that a lack of a degree should not prevent potential candidates from consideration. In her opinion, companies should keep some openings for immigrants without certification but with enough technical knowledge to compete for the positions.
While furthering one’s education is always an option, working survival jobs does not always provide the best financial flexibility. Even with support programs many immigrants can have issues with the reduced schooling rates and the fact that they may not be able to work as many hours during that time frame.
“The problem is if I get the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) I would not live with the same standard I have now working as [an] Uber driver,” Maria Alvarez explains. Sitting behind the wheel of her car she adds, “I would like to study Dental Hygienists or Digital Marketing.”
For Eugenia Gomez family obligations as well as monetary limitations have discouraged her from adding to her Mexican credentials.
“We arrive in Canada with many dreams and eager to work. In the beginning, we accept all kind of jobs because we have to pay rent, but when we want to try something else we are faced with the ‘Canadian experience’ requirement that is difficult for immigrants,” she explains.
The mother of two, now prioritizes her sons as opposed to her own professional opportunities.
Whereas others like Claudia, are maintaining up to two jobs as they save for fees that will regularize their immigration status.
Reaching full potential
In the Latin American community as well as many other immigrant groups, there is talent, experience, and professional skills that can go unnoticed. The government has attempted to eliminate the barrier that is “Canadian experience”, but as cases continue to arise, it seems a more concrete solution must be found.
Paola Gomez states that although these women face several professional obstacles of their own, they are content with the sacrifices they are making for their children.
“We need a more real political and societal intention, the intention of including Latina women into the workforce in ways that they can reach their full potential and Canadian society can benefit from it. Not only because of the betterment of the nation's economy but also because it gives a higher sense of belonging with the new home,” she concludes.
*Full name withheld to protect identity of individual.
Isabel Inclan is a journalist with three decades of experience in Mexico and in Canada. She currently works as a Foreign Correspondent for Notimex News Agency, a Mexican newspaper. This piece is part of the "Ethnic Women as Active Participants in Ontario" series.
Commentary by: Jennilee Austria in Toronto, ON
Back when I was a settlement worker, many of my newcomer clients would enter the job market in positions of non-skilled labour. Ranging from forklift operators to construction workers to food service workers many of them felt that they would have to start with survival jobs before moving on to a role that fit their credentials. The initial joy that accompanied their first tastes of Canadian employment would pass soon after a couple of months, where they would then meet with me to ask if coming to Canada was the right choice.
Upon arrival, their main barriers revolved around a lack of financial flexibility and professional networks, however after working survival jobs for a time, many would lose confidence. Coming from backgrounds in accounting, engineering, law, IT and other multi-faceted sectors; their old professions would seem so far gone that they would begin to doubt that they could return to them.
While precarious work will define the Canadian job market of the future, the majority of immigrants are usually unaware of the available programs that will lead them to more secure positions. As the federal government continues to ramp up efforts to bring in more skilled workers, more support systems have been put in place so that these individuals are able to overcome many of the toughest issues plaguing immigrants in the past.
If some of the newcomers I had worked with had known about opportunities for training or mentorship, I know that they could have been able to start their Canadian careers sooner.
One of the biggest issues newcomers often face has been a lack of ‘Canadian experience’. Although the Ontario Human Rights Commission has made concerted efforts to discourage employers from discriminating on this basis, many immigrants can attest to the continued existence of this phenomenon. While it can be difficult to regulate employers’ selection basis for a number of reasons, programs that offer both training and employment experience.
NPower Canada, an organization which advocates for diversity in the workplace, provides cost-free employment training programs for youth aged 18-29. Since its 2014 launch in Canada, the charity has been able to train and support over 500 youth.
The need for such a program has become increasingly apparent in recent years. A 2011 study revealed that 43% of immigrant women between 24-35 with university degrees obtained outside of Canada or the US, were working in positions that required a high school education or less.
But the statistics are truly brought into perspective with first-hand accounts like 27-year-old Nigerian newcomer Adebola Arogundade’s. She arrived in Canada with a B.Sc in Marketing as well as experience abroad in marketing strategies, point-of-sale systems, and customer service; however, she was unable to find work within her field of work.
At a crossroads she decided to enroll in a program with NPower Canada. The 10-week program allows participants to work towards various certifications while simultaneously introducing them to employers such as Rogers, TD Canada Trust and Alterna Savings.
The direct impact the program will have on Arogundade’s job search is yet to be seen, but nonetheless she is content with the training and the Canadian experience she will receive.
For other newcomers, survival jobs become a primary option because of friends and family members they may have, which have already gone down those paths. In an attempt to break this cycle, (The Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council) implemented a program that connects individuals with volunteer mentors in a range of careers.
“Immigrants often think that when they come, they have to get a survival job, like drive a taxi,” explains Daniel Kim of TRIEC. “But our whole organization’s mandate is to help those immigrants who come with skills and expertise, and to connect them to businesses who want that talent.”
Kim who is a Communications and Media Relations specialist with TRIEC, states that over 75% of the individuals enrolled in TRIEC Mentoring Partnership are able to find work within their field.
An astounding success rate that seemingly speaks to many of the studies that assert the benefits of mentor-mentee programs. While these relationships allow proteges to further develop their subject knowledge, it also helps facilitate more extensive professional networks. In addition, immigrants are able to practice soft skills which could benefit them immensely once they are within the workforce. The issue of ‘Canadian experience’ extends past the necessary technical skills for many employers. A lot of whom, worry about the soft skills newcomers may have, such as conflict resolution, workplace communication and fitting in with the team.
Professional Immigrant Networks
The TRIEC also provides an opportunity for immigrants to join networks specific to their profession and ethnicity.
PINs (Professional Immigrant Networks) are comprised of a range of occupations and ethnic backgrounds, from the Philippine Teachers Association Canada to the Association des femmes maroco-canadiennes (Association of Female Moroccan-Canadians).
Many of these networks were actually started by immigrants themselves.
Upon emigrating from the United Kingdom, Jenny Okonkwo felt isolated without a group that she could relate to. “Basically, what happened was that I didn’t know any Black female accountants,” she says. “If you don’t immediately have that small circle to call on, that just shows how big the gap is.”
In 2016, Okonkwo started BFAN (the Black Female Accountants Network), and soon after, her network joined PINs.
Today, BFAN has grown to 600 members nationwide and works in partnership with CPA Ontario (Chartered Professional Accountants). Their mandate is to encourage female accountants of African descent to network, share knowledge, and advance themselves in accounting.
“BFAN provides résumé reviews, career advice, development of soft skills, networking opportunities, and more— and all for free to the Afro-Caribbean diaspora in Canada,” said Okonkwo. While they don’t provide job matches, their members, ranging from executives to university students, are dedicated to helping others develop professional skills.
Their members have already published articles, presented on public stages, and created study groups to help one another pass their CPA exams.
“The value comes from saying to a newcomer, ‘I’ve already walked this path. I’ve walked it two, five, fifteen years ago, and here’s how I did it,’” said Okonkwo. “And they come out feeling like they’ve made the right decision about the progression of their career in Canada.”
TRIEC’s PINs and Mentoring Partnership program as well as NPower Canada’s employment training programs are only a few of the unique opportunities available to newcomers. While these free initiatives can help many immigrants overcome the innumerable barriers they will be faced with, they will only be effective if these skilled individuals are aware of what is available to them. Only time will tell how Ontario will ensure these resources are being utilized.
This piece is part of the "Ethnic Women as Active Participants in Ontario" series.
By: Manaal Farooqi in Toronto, ON
One in every five Canadian women is born outside of the country. However, despite diverse ethnic backgrounds, many communities face discriminatory hurdles others may never witness in their lifetimes. This notion is only amplified in the case of Muslim immigrant women, who can experience challenges springing from multiple biases.
"Gendered Islamophobia" affects them in ways that are often left out of the wider conversation about the immigrant experience.
Whereas Islamophobia is defined as an irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against Islam or people who practice Islam, gendered Islamophobia dissects the issue a step further by diving into more pointed signs of inequity. Muslim women may be victims of both sexism and Islamophobia, disadvantaging them as they navigate through schooling, employment and other public spaces.
But, ultimately, it could play a huge role in their overall sense of safety.
Muslim women, specifically those identifiable through religious headgear or prayer routines practiced in public, can be more prone to being victims due to their "visible" status. This has led to cases of assault as well as blatant displays of anti-Muslim rhetoric.
Aima, a Pakistani Canadian Muslim woman who dons the niqab, has dealt with discrimination in both public spaces and at university as well. She would find herself consistently ignored in classrooms when she attempted to answer or ask a question during lectures; and when she was able to speak in class she found her answers were met with greater scrutiny, even when they were correct.
Other comments directed towards her included unwelcome discussions on forced marriage along with the fact that she’s been repeatedly told that she “[enjoys] so much freedom” for someone wearing a niqab. She adds that “my body will be policed and my choices scrutinized” for the expression of her faith and identity within today’s socio-political climate.
And she’s not alone, Shazlin, a Malaysian immigrant who once wore religious headgear, states she has had similar experiences, in addition to street harassment.
“Even talking about it now, it makes me angry that I was vulnerable and that I was made a victim in that moment when I know I have a lot more agency,” she says. She recalls one particular incident when on a walk with other visibly Muslim women in Toronto, a man verbally assaulted them and attempted to flick cigarette butts at them.
Regardless of what Islamophobes think, the comments and questions Muslim women face on an everyday basis eventually begin to take their toll. T.G*, who is an Ethiopian Muslim immigrant, has found that people often assume she lacks intellect, agency and knowledge of pop culture because of her hijab.
“I’m a walking encyclopedia on all the ethnicities, cultural expressions, and nuanced faith practices of the Muslim world,” T.G adds sarcastically. “We are expected to be the compassionate caretaker, teacher, and empathetic listener to all manners of ignorance about our faith. The brunt of the burden of flag-bearing for Islam falls on us – especially hijab-wearing Muslim women.”
Seeking a lower profile
But Muslim women who are more visibly ambiguous are not immune to similar experiences. As in the case of Safia*, an Arab-Canadian Muslim who does not wear any religious headgear such as the niqab or hijab. Yet, she constantly faces questions related to terrorist groups such as ISIS at her workplace.
One of her former coworkers even emailed her after the Orlando shooting with footage he had found of an Imam who seemed to have made homophobic comments. He wrote to her demanding, “We want answers. What is your community doing about this?"
No action was taken and the comments continued, despite the fact that Safia had made complaints to her immediate supervisor multiple times. In the absence of authoritative intervention, she weathers the harassment through therapy.
Sara*, a young professional of North African descent who doesn’t wear a hijab, has attempted to keep her religious affiliation from co-workers, out of fear that repercussions could affect future opportunities and her overall comfort at work.
Sara explains that her former employer would bring her news articles about honour killings in an attempt to make a correlation with her faith that would justify its relevance. The controversial articles forced her into a defensive position on a complex subject that she did not even agree with. Now she avoids questions about religion or her ethnicity to discourage unwelcome conversations.
These experiences only begin to highlight some of the situations Muslim women are faced with on a daily basis. The full impact it may have on their everyday interactions, ability to navigate public spaces or even in their careers remains immeasurable.
*names have been changed to protect the identity of these women
Manaal Farooqi is a writer and community organizer working on issues of violence against women and race. This piece is part of the "Ethnic Women as Active Participants in Ontario" series.
By: Shan Qiao in Toronto, ON
Cindy Leung drops off her husband, Chuck, to a day program at a Scarborough, Ontario long-term care facility. Waving to social worker, Benny Choi from her car she watches Chuck being pushed away in a wheelchair.
Going through this daily routine, she reflects on where it all started. Eight years ago, Chuck had a massive heart attack and fainted at home. Rushed to the hospital, he was resuscitated after his heart completely stopped beating for minutes that seemed to go well past 60-second intervals. Luckily, he was revived. But after suffering from severe brain damage, he was eventually transferred to a day program following intensive care. And through rehabilitation on weekdays, he has been able to slowly recover his ability to speak coherently.
“My husband was a chef working in [a] restaurant and I was the waitress. Life was quite satisfying until that day he had [a] heart attack. He was only 45 years old at that time,” Leung explains in a voice that exudes calm.
Although her workload at home has increased, financial constraints have kept her from seeking any additional time at work. Supporting the household as well as emerging medical expenses as the sole source of income, she points to the solace she finds in maintaining a routine.
“We do receive some medical benefit and social assistance, but I cannot stop working. We still have a child in college. Working is one way to support the family financially and another way to support myself psychologically,” she continues.
Social worker Choi knows what Leung is going through. “Many of our patients encounter stress and frustration when dealing with their inability to talk and walk. It often causes tension towards themselves and their family,” he explains. Most of the patients that come to the facility are males, most of whom receive care from their middle to old-age wives.
It’s a story that’s known all too well across the country, women who are forced to take on dual roles within the household and the professional workplace. An astonishing 72 per cent of women caregivers aged 45 to 65 in Canada are also in the labour force. Always thankful for the support systems provided, Leung praises a healthcare system that has afforded her options that nationals of other countries can only dream of.
“I drop him off to this day program from Monday to Friday when I have to work. During [the] weekend, our children can chip in and make it possible for me to take some extra shift[s]. I receive daily feedback [about] him mostly from social workers like Benny. Sometimes, they probably talk to him more than I do. I really appreciate it. [It is] the whole Canadian health care system that gives my husband a second chance.”
Looking back on life before the near-fatal incident, brings back memories of her husband as a genial and tall man, shouldering all the responsibilities that come with family life.
Leung, who works in a restaurant as a floor manager, oversees a venue with a 500-seat capacity. Never one to complain, she cherishes having the ability to work while caring for her husband.
On the other hand, Emily Liu discovered her true career passion as a breastfeeding activist and prospective doula (a person trained to provide advice, information, emotional support, and physical comfort to a mother before, during, and just after childbirth) after becoming a mother and main caregiver to her two young kids.
“I was a chartered accountant, worked for one of the Big Fours. I made a lot and yet lost a lot in personal time. I can work up to 70 to 80 hours during busy tax seasons until, one day, I noticed a mental meltdown while I was pregnant with my first one. Then I know I have to take a pause,” Liu says.
Motivated by her own baby, Liu made a move to “downgrade” her work portfolio to a local small accounting firm in Mississauga. Taking on a partner role, she was able to make her work hours flexible so she could juggle work with the responsibilities of raising a child.
In the end, Liu terminated her partnership, opting for a career as a freelance accountant. That was until two years ago, when she completely withdrew from the accounting business.
“I slowly find out my keen interest in breastfeeding and promoting it, something I really enjoy doing while raising up my kids,” she stresses. Since then, Liu takes her kids to the La Leche League Canada’s breastfeeding leader training class.
“This is the solution in my case, working while babysitting and I love doing both,” she giggles. Liu quit one labour market to enter another, one that’s been more welcoming to mothers and caregivers.
Moving across continents
Caregivers can come from a variety of sources, but it is extremely common to see family members step in as figures of support, sometimes flying across continents. As in the case of 65 year old Elvira Vergara, when the call came from her late husband’s cousin, there was only one choice to make.
Single with a grown son, residing in Columbia, Vergara moved in. Now 80 years old and widowed, her patient suffered from high blood pressure as well as diabetes. Taking the position as a live-in caregiver, they’ve been cohabiting for eight months and both feel positive about one another’s roles.
When asked why she chose Vergara, the cousin shrugs her shoulders and beams, “I’ve seen her great attitude working as a house cleaner. My kids probably can’t do a better job than her. We know each other from the past. I trust her,” she nods.
“Gracias,” Vergara replies in Spanish.
Although Vergara was able to fill a fulltime position through caregiving, thousands of women are forced to manage dual roles as they maintain their professional positions. It is essential that the support systems built to help these individuals are not only readily available but that they also instill their trust. With nearly half of women caregivers declining available arrangements based on the potential impact on their careers; its clear that more awareness must be brought to the benefits. Only then can these services be deemed helpful and accessible to all Canadians.
By: Asfia Yasir in Toronto, ON
Immigration is reshaping Ontario's classrooms, changing the demographics of both students and teachers. The latest statistics indicate that one in 10 new teachers hired in Ontario is internationally-trained (about 1,000 of 11,000 new teachers in 2016). The transition is never easy for these newcomer teachers as they get used to cultural norms very different from their home nations and learn to deal with a room full of students who may not always look up to the person standing in front of the classroom.
Hycinth Gomez, an Indian immigrant working at a private Montessori school, can attest to some of these “unique circumstances”. Starting out as a volunteer before moving her way up to her current teaching role, she still found herself faced with difficulties that others did not face – at least not to the same extent.
“I started as a supply teacher in an elementary school and sometimes I had to bear more than the class teacher. I used to get badgered so much because children knew I was not there permanently,” says Hycinth Gomez. Having taught in Ontario for almost eight years now, she has had the opportunity to work with a number of age groups through additional UCMAS (Universal Concepts of Mental Arithmetic Systems) courses she also helps administer.
Immigrants coming from developing countries may also bring their own set of values and norms, serving perhaps as important role models for students who may not always see visible minorities in positions of authority and instruction. The student-teacher dynamic is one that new instructors navigate delicately as they get used to Canadian norms.
“When I was growing up, my teacher was like an empowering tower on me and I was always shushed whenever I asked more than one question. Whereas in Canada, asking questions and handling them positively is the norm,” Gomez points out.
This dynamic is not unique to elementary or high school classrooms. A female immigrant scientist* who teaches at the University of Toronto, vents her own frustration. “Students find my accent funny. They come to me for help all the time, during and after the class. But my accent gives me a hard time.” She is convinced that part of the problem is her gender, pointing out that no male faculty member seems to face the same hardship.
Female teachers can be perceived as exercising less authority in a classroom and there is some evidence to suggest this is a hard-wired bias. Recent studies based on student evaluations reveal that male teachers receive higher scores in a number of areas, including aspects that were readily comparable. For example, when reviewing categories such as “promptness” – which refers to how quickly an assignment was returned – male instructors scored 16 per cent higher than their female peers.
Dr. John Shields, a professor in the department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University and an authority on the subject of immigrant settlement and integration, also attributes this to a hard-wired bias. “Immigrant teachers lack the relevant experience. Specifically, female immigrant teachers have difficulty in commanding authority in a classroom due to gender bias. As a result, students put extra demands, for example [demanding] retests, more time, even if the deadline is met, which burdens their work.”
Shields further highlights the societal pressures that extends to women students at the university level, saying, “Although the number of female students is a lot more than male students, it is still quite demanding for them considering the fact that the responsibility of childcare or an elderly family member is more upon women than men.”
Mehreen Faisal, who recently graduated from Ryerson University with distinction, couldn't agree more. She states, “As a mother I have more responsibility of the house and kids and studying with that status gives me extra pressure to cope up with my family life and studies at the same time." A Vanier Institute of the Family info-graphic titled "Women, Caregiving and Work in Canada", confirms that Faisal is not alone. Women are more likely than men to report having spent 20 hours or more per week providing care, separate from what they are employed to do.
A third issue for newcomer high school teachers like Linda Mourot, who started teaching later in life, is the perception that she is perhaps taking a job away from a younger person. “People think that if I am going to college at the age of 50, its very shameful as there are so many young people out there looking for jobs and here I am at this age who is going to take a job needed by young people.”
However, in Mourot's case, her experience has only made her more bold and confident. As a teacher of French in an officially bilingual nation, she is amazed that some students seem averse to learning a new language. Many parents do not realize the importance of learning French. “They have never travelled outside of Canada, never even to French-speaking Canada, so they see no use of French. You never know young people today may find a French speaking girlfriend tomorrow, but they find it funny.”
With their wider spectrum of experiences, immigrant teachers offer a variety of new perspectives that can make all the difference in helping to widen a child's horizons. However, these teachers face real challenges. After all, it is surely not an accident that a settlement organization like Skills for Changes in Toronto owes it origins in 1982 to "five English as a Second Language teachers [who] identified a need and shared a vision for integrated skills and language training."
*identity has been kept confidential to protect individual
By: Nanyi Albuero in Toronto, ON
The rhythmic sound of embroidering machines surround Mariam Said Mobinullah as she expertly navigates her way around a sea of powerful equipment. She reaches for the box of buttons, clasps and hooks; attaching them to various garments in one fell swoop. With movements that have become all but muscle memory, she wastes no time stitching initials onto the assortment of robe bags. There are targets to be met.
However, in the midst of another eight-hour shift which pays minimum wage with no benefits, Mariam reflects on her disappointment. She admits this was not how she envisioned life in her adopted country. As a hand sewer in a tailoring factory in Toronto, her days now involve working with varieties of gowns, coats, shirts, pants and scarves. A far cry from her days as a teacher back in Kabul.
Looking to escape war-torn Afghanistan, Mobinullah moved to Canada with her family over five years ago. Her hope lies “in the good dreams I have for my children’s future” as the silver lining to her struggles.
She is not alone in finding difficulty as a new Canadian. The road to an immigrant realizing the “Canadian Dream” is fraught with roadblocks about one’s qualifications and whether employers will recognize them. Highly skilled professionals with university degrees in their native countries are often relegated to survival jobs and paid a minimum wage with no job stability in sight. Hence the stories about doctors driving cabs or engineers as security guards or delivering pizzas. And with that low income demographic comes the term “working poor”.
Deena Ladd, Coordinator at the Workers’ Action Centre in Toronto, reflects on this conundrum: “It’s no surprise. So many people’s qualifications are not accepted coming into this country. Research studies have shown that getting these qualifications recognised and getting the equivalency of these qualifications is just insurmountable for so many people."
Ladd further observed that it can even be tough for newcomers who choose to go back to school because “how do you go back to school if you have to pay your bills?”
No Canadian Experience
This was the dilemma Mayurika Trivedi found herself in when she arrived in Canada from India in 1997. She proudly says “I’m not a newcomer. I came to Canada with my two sons.” However, her accounting and business administration degree did not land her a professional job but instead she started as a machine operator in a factory.
She was also subjected to that dreaded mantra: No Canadian experience. Frustrated by the lack of information for new arrivals and not enough training resources, she had no choice but to work the night shift in an automotive factory. Later on she was transferred to the day shift.
Mayurika was forced to leave her job in 2010 when her husband fell ill. In spite of the hardships she is not giving up and plans on going back to school “to upgrade my education and help me in my career”. She hopes to one day be financially independent so she is able to fulfill her dreams.
Heartbreaking, as is the plight of 1.5 million women in Canada living on a low income. This is a fact of life which Mariam Said Mobinullah and Mayurika Trevidi face in a G7 nation.
While some immigrants have given up on the “Canadian Dream” and returned to their home countries, that option simply does not exist for many. Moving away from places that do not offer the same liberties or securities, a trip back could prove costly in the long run.
It can still be an uphill climb for many professional women who arrive in Canada fleeing war or persecution. There can be subtle yet systemic racism based on the colour of one’s skin, a foreign-sounding name or accent.
It is distressing that 28 per cent of visible minority women live in poverty; almost 70 per cent of part-time workers are women and 60 per cent of minimum-wage earners are female, according to the Canadian Women's Foundation.
Dr. Izumi Sakamoto, of the University of Toronto, points to employers who knowingly or unknowingly are discriminating against immigrants by prioritizing "Canadian experience" over credentials that may have been obtained abroad. "When they show up to job interviews, they're told they don't have Canadian experience and can't be hired. Somehow your experience is inferior to that of a Canadian," she explained during an interview on CBC Radio's Metro Morning.
In 2013, the Ontario Human Rights Commission ruled the question of "Canadian experience", a violation of the Ontario Human Rights Code. However, as new Canadians continue to face this obstacle, it's clear that a more practical solution must be implemented. Sakamoto calls for more awareness as Canada looks to open its doors to more skilled immigrants. That it has become a code violation is good news, but remains small comfort for the thousands in Ontario mired in survival and precarious jobs.
By: Tazeen Inam in Toronto, ON
One woman is murdered in Canada every six days, according to the Canadian Women’s Foundation. This statistic belies what's been happening in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) since the beginning of 2018: there has been a dramatic increase in female homicides, with five women killed in a span of six days.
Three were from the Peel Region, one from Halton and another from the Hamilton Region; all at the hands of their male partners.
Sharon Floyd, Executive Director of Interim Place in Mississauga, calls it “horrific” and says that there is “no specific cookie cutter that can tell what abuse looks like.”
“Women are murdered because they are women, they are not valued in their families and their voices are not heard,” she added.
In the midst of volatile situations, many women often turn to the shelter system which provides a safe haven for thousands annually. And although it may seem like a viable option for many, a lack of resources can force many shelters to turn away prospective residents in need.
The thought can be alarming, considering that in Ontario, 65 per cent of female shelter residents were fleeing emotional abuse and 46 per cent were escaping physical abuse.
Immigrant women more vulnerable
For women who have immigrated from countries that do not share the same gender-neutral values, abuse can manifest itself at even more alarming rates. Studies show that "immigrant women may be more vulnerable to domestic violence due to economic dependence, language barriers, and a lack of knowledge about community resources."
Canada is fraught with examples of this exact scenario and Samira Farah (name changed to protect victim's identity), a Bengali immigrant, endured many forms of abuse before finally finding access to the resources needed to remove herself from a potentially dangerous situation. Following an arranged marriage in Bangladesh, Farah immediately migrated to the U. S. before settling in Canada with her husband. Throughout their 10-year marriage, she was bombarded with emotional, physical, sexual and financial abuse.
Her husband asked Farah to obtain money ($50,000) from her father to pay-off his own debt, but she refused. Instead, she resorted to jobs as a salon worker in a failed attempt to raise money.
Even through emotional abuse and intimidation by her in-laws, Farah gave birth to a baby boy in 2003. Despite the trauma she had experienced, which included multiple miscarriages, positive thinking allowed her to find solace in her newborn.
However, her husband did not share her joy. With an eye on Farah's inheritance, he tortured her with threats of murder in isolated barren areas. Going as far as physical abuse with a knife in the presence of their then three-year-old son, she knew she had to make a change.
Farah struggled in silence to improve her marriage by opting for marriage counselling. Her counsellor suggested she call the police and later referred her to a shelter home.
“I didn’t want my son to grow in this violent environment, I want to teach him respect for women and that’s when I decided for divorce,” Farah says bravely.
Every victim is different, however, their aspirations are revived when “they hear that they are not alone”, explains Floyd, who runs a crisis centre for women. “With some initial counselling they learn that it’s not their fault and women are not to blame; this is more of a societal issue.”
Farah initially started her mobile beauty spa to make ends meet. But in the process, she has met women from diverse cultures who have been through varied kinds of trauma inflicted by their intimate partners.
She believes that sharing stories with others has helped many alleviate the trauma they have endured.
“I am not the only person who has gone through this, [there are] worse stories out there, but that little bit [of] light of hope can change a lot of things,” Farah says.
Working in different sales and marketing departments, she has now been able to gradually regain her self-esteem. With the support of her co-workers, instructors and mentors she has even followed through on previous plans to further her studies by enrolling in a College program.
“Besides taking action on divorce and get[ting] out of that relationship, I am capable of doing anything that is possible in life,” she says with new confidence.
A woman's self-worth
Generally, it takes a woman 6-7 attempts before she actually pulls away from a relationship because they are not sure of the abuse.Especially when the perpetrator is controlling, it’s important to note that a woman’s security risk doubles when she decides to leave.
Nancy Gibbs, a professor of Community Social Work at triOS College, suggests that education, information and a safety plan must be readily available. Working with victims for over 25 years, she maintains that only through greater public awareness will there be more consistency on what actually constitutes abuse.
“Advertising, blasting social media with what is available to women and what abuse looks like,” she explains, are great ways to spread the word. “It’s important to educate [a] woman [on] her own personal value.”
What one person would call abuse, another may refer to as just normal behaviour. Gibbs concludes that creating consistency in what is considered acceptable behaviour, stands as one of the first steps to eliminating abuse and ensuring a safer Canada for all.
-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit