BLOG 2: reflections on 'living in colour': my immigration journey and the helping hands.

I was invited to speak at  Living in Colour show at Global TV with Farah Nasser. Farah and the producer of this show, Alley Wilson, are both women of colour. I am always thrilled to meet trailblazers women like Farah and Alley who utilize the media to tell the otherwise untold stories of everyday, lived experiences of people of colour. 

Storytelling can be a powerful tool to connect with people, their stories and relate to their experiences. I was struck by the incredible stories of people of colour in this show. Their courage, resilience and determination to not only share their own stories but also to continue to challenge the status quo. We need more platforms to feature POC and give them the space to share their own stories. Experiences with racism, microaggressions, experiences as visible minorities and how these people lead in everyday life while POC. How hard is it to lead while POC? How are our visible identities, race, colour of our skin socially constructed? How are we fighting for our  space in a predominantly white western society?

When I asked the host and producer of Living in Colour about the idea of the show and what is the message that they hoped the audience will get from this show, they wrote back:

“Although it has taken many years, I’ve learned to not apologize for who I am as a Woman of Colour but rather embrace my unique voice. My producer, Alley Wilson, started this series to talk about everyday subjects through the lens of people of colour and offer audiences different perspectives that they may not be exposed to regularly. Some of these conversations have been difficult, embarrassing and uncomfortable but all of them have been eye-opening.” – Farah Nasser, host of Living In Colour and Global News anchor

“As a woman of colour, I always found it hard to express what it was I was going through on a daily basis to people who were not from a racialized community. I came up with Living In Colour because I realized that I wasn’t alone in the way I felt. I wanted a safe space for people of colour (POCs) to have in-depth discussions, which are sometimes difficult and painful to tell, with people who would understand what it was they were going through. For the people who watch the show, whether they are POCs or not, I hope they understand that we aren’t trying to point fingers or blame anyone about what it is we’re going through. Instead, I want the audience to take note of our discussions and try to understand what it is we’re saying and why it’s important to us.” – Alley Wilson, producer of Living In Colour

Do I belong? 

Before coming to Canada, I never had any issues or struggles with my identity.  During my interview, I told Farah that one of my biggest challenges had been renegotiating my identity and finding a community that I can belong to.

This is a very complicated experience for many immigrants.  Negotiating a new identity and adapting to a new social location can be tough -- but It is a self reflection journey that we should take. This journey has taught me that after so many years trying to desperately fit it, I now embrace my identity, who I am and feel a sense of pride that no one has the right to ever take from me. No one has the right to make me feel as if I don’t belong. 

Many immigrants don’t feel the same way. During the interview, I wanted to share my  self-reflection journey. I tell people that I will forever be an immigrant and, although I came to the realization of self-acceptance, the feeling of otherness in this country became my shadow -- so do we really belong? Does that feeling exist in one of the most diverse countries in the world? Do we connect  despite our differences? Do people appreciate those differences? 

Everybody needs a helping hand at the beginning of their journey but are we giving these immigrants a helping hand or we are slamming the door behind us and saying enough of these immigrants? In the next blog I hope to start a conversation about how best to help.

I reflect daily on my immigration experience, but to prepare for the Living in Color interview I had to dig deeper. I needed to compare my story to others’. Since I founded the Newcomer Students’ Association of Ryerson four years ago, and through my capacity working in the settlement sector here in Toronto, I heard hundreds of these stories from fellow immigrant and refugee. I listened to accounts of struggle, fear, uncertainty, desperation, hope, sacrifice, courage, resilience and inspiration.

While this platform allowed me to connect with the community that I am part of -- the immigrant community -- it also showed me another side to life. A side that is full of fear and uncertainty, and how desperate people are to make fatal decisions to cross borders and rivers to seek refuge. A side that made me understand my position and privileges and question the human race/being. A side that made me wonder: If It was not for the people who gave me a helping hand when I first came to Canada, would I even be able to be where I am today?

Although our decision to move to Canada was influenced by the political situation back home, we still had a choice to make. Unlike many refugees who were forced to leave fleeing violence and persecution, we came here through the economic class as skilled immigrants. The Canadian immigration system is a point system that favours those who are privileged and have the resources and can afford to move and settle in Canada. We were the kind of immigrants Canada is looking to recruit. My husband and I were both highly educated, experienced, spoke the language and were young. We were privileged in the sense that we didn’t have to put our safety, or even our life, at risk coming here.

Is Migration Ever Going to End?

Migration, displacement and the refugee crises are not going to stop if we were not to identify and address root causes. We live in a world on the move where migration is influenced by circumstances and actions occurring around the world. Migration is shaped by politics, economy, demographics, human rights, climate change and much more. Climate change is and will continue to be one of the biggest drivers of migration. Natural disasters and the effect of climate change will continue to contribute to migration and displacement around the world.

Countries such as Canada will continue to have a growing number of people seeking asylum and protection. According to UNHCR's annual Global Trends Report – released on June 2019 nearly 70.8 million people were displaced at the end of 2018. A number that is worth reflecting on. But how can Canada be a leading voice in migration? How can we do better in welcoming and accepting immigrants and refugees into our communities? 

BLOG 1: Reflections on ‘Living in Colour’: Embracing and amplifying my unique voice.

I think we have done a lot of great things to be proud of as Canadians. Take a look for example at the Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program -- a one-of-a-kind refugee program that other countries should look at. But there are always ways to improve. Our response to the refugee crisis is a work in progress and just as we helped thousands of Syrian refugees find a safe home, we can definitely help other refugees find peace and safety in Canada.

But how can we look at the benefits from having such a great pathway to sponsor refugees through the private sponsorship program beyond just sponsoring refugees?
In other words: Canadians who sponsored refugees demonstrated courage and compassion, and in return many of them found connection and community in this new experience. Sponsorship programs allow Canadian citizens to be ambassadors for refugees.

During my time working with LifeLine Syria -- a non-profit assisting sponsor groups to welcome and resettle Syrian refugees as permanent residents in the GTA, I have heard and seen many heartbreaking stories, of people desperate to leave war-torn Syria. Even when we were trying to help connect these refugees to private sponsors’ groups, in many cases, we lost connection with these refugees and we never knew what happened to them.  On the other hand, I have seen sponsors passion and commitment to help refugees resettle in their new home -- Canada. An experience that is worth having. 

A journey full of Obstacles & Hope (Barriers to Integration).

Through my migration journey, I realized how truly daunting the migration and settlement experience can be especially for immigrants of colour. There are several systemic and structural barriers experienced by immigrants and refugees settling in Canada.These barriers can be summarized under three major headings:

1. Employment and education.

2. Culture and social barriers.

3. Access to significant services such as settlement support, healthcare, child care and transportation.

Social isolation and exclusion is one of the biggest obstacles that newcomers face when they arrive in Canada. Immigrants of colour in particular might also face discrimination, prejudice and racism. Social capital and social network is so crucial to immigrants and newcomers. As a mom, for example, the lack of affordable childcare was a big barrier for me that hindered my ability to work and delayed my career plans -- and even volunteer work was not possible without daycare or  junior kindergarten. Back then, kindergarten was part time which is something that is not helpful for working moms. Now our provincial government is looking to bring back the JK and SK part time system and thousands of childcare spots are at risk now due to new provincial changes. These kind of policies and decisions will negatively impact thousands of families and moms out there particularly immigrant families who lack the financial and family network support and can’t afford childcare.  The list of barriers and challenges faced by immigrants does not end.

 This is just to name a few barriers. Like many newcomers to Canada, I faced many to employment-related issues including but not limited to credentials and Canadian experience. More importantly, immigrants of colour might face bias and discrimination when applying for jobs -- statistically, women and immigrant women of colour are even at higher risk of facing employment challenges.

 For immigrant students in particular, which my area of work and advocacy is focused, they are faced with many barriers and this quote sums it very well: “The concerns of newly-arrived immigrant students include the need for English language acquisition, the lack of social support networks and of social acceptance, racial labeling and categorization, acquiring new learning styles, post-traumatic stress syndrome, different cultural scripts, and the typical development issues that all students face” (Williams & Butler, 2003, p.9).

I have paused when asked by Farah Nasser at "Living in Colour" if I think immigrants are treated differently based on where they come from, for example (Middle East versus Europe). Two main thoughts came to my mind.

 #1. The representation of immigrants of Colour and how these immigrants are portrayed in mainstream media. I grew up seeing all influential people in Hollywood movies, in business, in politics and different industries as white people. It was very rare to see a political leader who identifies as a person of colour. For example, I am someone who has political aspirations and I aspire to run for office one day but It is hard to visualize myself in that position when I don’t see immigrant women of colour in these positions. Representation really matters -- genuine representation and not pulling the diversity card. This community should not be tokenized but rather recognized for their abilities, knowledge and experiences.

#2. This also goes hand-in-hand on how the mainstream media is portraying immigrants from certain backgrounds and identities such as Arab Immigrants, Muslim immigrants, Black and South Asian immigrants. Immigrants of Colour have been treated as outsiders and have been seen as “others.” Their race and identity have been linked to the criminal justice system and terrorism, these immigrants are treated differently based on their race, ethnicity, culture, background and where they come from. When I say media I not only mean newsrooms, but also movies, children's cartoons, books, etc.

Many studies have shown the correlation and connection between media coverage and attitudes towards immigrants. It is time for our media to be on the right side of history and focus on the positive stories of migration. Media has the power to influence the discourse of migration and attitudes towards immigrants. The first step to change the negative image of immigrants in the media is to change the language being used in the media. Language has the power to transform our ways of thinking about this particular community. Language is used to frame, label and disadvantage a whole population. We should stop labeling immigrants as people that would drain the system, as unwanted invaders or even calling them “illegal aliens.”  We need a paradigm shift in the ways those immigrants are portrayed. We need to focus and shed light on the untold positive side/ stories of migration --these stories deserve to be documented and told.

After living six years in a country that prides itself with its diversity, multiculturalism and acceptance to people from different walks of life, I do believe that immigrants of colour are treated differently. I believe that we live in a society that has a very well established system that treats immigrants of colour as second class citizens. I’ll end up by asking how can we eliminate and remove the systemic and structural barriers to integration that prevent immigrants from fully participating in society and particularly immigrants of colour. How can we help them find their voice and place in the community and their sense of belonging?

BLOG 3: reflections on 'living in colour': Have we done enough to help refugees settle in Canada?