by Beatrice Paez in Toronto 

July 1, 2016 marks 93 years since the Chinese Immigration Act came into force, which marked the culmination of a decades-long initiative to limit Chinese immigration to Canada.

The Chinese head tax already existed to discourage immigration. By 1903, migrants were required to pay a $500 head tax, equivalent to two years’ worth of wages, to gain entry into Canada.

In the second half of the 19th century, many young Chinese men were sent to Canada with the hopes of earning enough money to support families back home and, eventually, to send for them. Though the head tax stemmed the flow of immigration, almost 100,000 still arrived from 1885 to 1923.

“The 19th century was highly mobile, perhaps as mobile as now. Chinese migrants would work overseas and regularly go back to visit,” says Henry Yu, a history professor at the University of British Columbia.

In order to stop the influx, the government passed the Chinese Immigration Act, which limited entrance to only merchants, scholars, diplomats and Canadian-born Chinese returning after educational pursuits abroad.

It would take 24 years for the Act to be lifted, a period during which only 15 Chinese immigrants were allowed into Canada.

Initial Chinese immigration to Canada

Famine and economic deprivation propelled many in China to leave in search of opportunity, or head to Gold Mountain, as British Columbia’s gold rush came to be known, says John Atkin, co-chair of the Chinese Canadian Historical Society in B.C.

They eked out a meagre living — relative to their white counterparts — working on the railroad, in fishing, forestry, among other industries.

Still, the prospect of steady employment far outweighed concerns about racial discrimination and hostile attitudes toward them. Villages cobbled their resources together to cover the head tax so that one of their own could emigrate, says Atkin.

“A lot of these workers would try to bring their families over,” says Jan Ransk, a researcher at Pier 21.

Growing hostility and the Chinese Immigration Act

With the head tax deemed an ineffective deterrent, Canadians demanded that the federal government end Chinese immigration. The “nativist response” originated in B.C., the front lines of immigration, where many felt their economic livelihood was under threat as they sought employment in the same trades as immigrants, says Ransk.

Their perceptions were largely coloured by “notions of immigrant desirability,” with Asians being deemed inferior, he adds.

“It’s from a period of time that, from our perspective, is so hard to comprehend how normal it was just to discriminate automatically against a whole class of people,” says Atkin.

The Chinese Immigration Act was enforced on July 1, 1923, coinciding with Dominion Day, which commemorated the formation of Canada as a Dominion in 1867. But for Chinese-Canadians, what was marked with parades and fireworks was a stinging reminder of their second-class status, and they called it Humiliation Day.

They abstained from participating or holding celebrations that day, until the act’s repeal in 1947.

Effects on the Chinese-Canadian community

Yu’s maternal grandfather settled in Vancouver in 1923, just before the implementation of the Act.

It was only in 1965 that Yu’s family could be reunited in Vancouver, but even then his mother, as an adult, needed to apply for special consideration.

This sort of exclusion perpetuated what had become a “bachelor society” in the Chinese-Canadian community. Census data from 1911 reveals that there were 2,800 Chinese men for every 100 Chinese women, as reported in Arlene Chen’s book “The Chinese in Toronto from 1878.”

“Exclusion had a devastating effect because for those already here, those generations after generations were cut off,” says Yu. “If you weren’t married already before 1923 and you had no family, it was harder both to create one and to bring family members over.”

The community was also forced to wrestle with the prospect they would be deported. “The immediate effect was that the folks that were here didn’t want to leave  —  they might not be allowed back in,” says Atkin.

What emerged in response were Chinese schools to educate children on their heritage and to prepare them for life in China should they be forced to return.

The repeal of the Immigration Act and the necessity of remembering

Apart from the efforts of community leaders, what ultimately paved the way for the lifting of the Exclusion Act were Chinese immigrants’ wartime contributions. They were one of the largest purchasers of war bonds during the Second World War, notes Atkin. Despite not qualifying as citizens, about 600 Chinese enlisted in the war.

“[Their military service] brought their efforts to the fore,” says Ransk. “The fact that they’re seeing women donate time, selling baked goods, made [Canadians] realize that pre-war notions of exclusion and thinking this community was unpatriotic, was complete nonsense.”

On June 22, 2006, the Harper government issued a formal apology to Chinese-Canadians who had paid the head tax; their survivors or spouses were given $20,000 in compensation.

For Yu, the apology was bittersweet and long overdue. “By 2006, it didn’t do those who actually paid the head tax any good,” he says. “Most of those people had long passed away.”

Suk Yin Ng, a librarian at the Toronto Public Library, immigrated from Hong Kong as a student in the 1970s. She is now leading an effort within the library to collect and establish a physical Chinese-Canadian archive, from 1878 up to today.

Ng will be collecting a range of ephemera, from diaries and old photographs to head tax certificates and grocery bills.

“It’s difficult for them to part with their [family documents],” says Ng. “But they realize that this is the right thing to do before they disappear. I think they’re happy to find a good home, to let people know the contributions of their grandparents.”

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Published in History

by Beatrice Paez in Toronto

As a child, it wasn’t unusual for Ann Y.K. Choi to be at work behind the counter of her family’s convenience store in Toronto. She and her two brothers were expected to help their parents when they finished school.

Choi’s teenage daughter, a third-generation Korean-Canadian, isn’t familiar with the ins-and-outs of running a variety store – no more stocking shelves with instant noodles, no more keeping a wary eye out for shoplifters.

But Choi says the children of immigrants shouldn’t be spared from learning about the sacrifices their parents made to ensure their children would not undergo the same hardships they endured.

It’s one of the reasons she wrote Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety, a fictional, yet deeply personal, account of life in a downtown Toronto convenience store. Mary, the novel’s headstrong, yet conflicted, protagonist, is a composite of Choi and other young Korean women she knew whose stories had yet to be told to a wider audience.

Preserving Canadian history

Choi says she wasn’t ready to pen a memoir for her debut as a writer, but wanted her daughter and other young Canadians to be aware of the Korean-Canadian experience.

“Nobody has gone on to inherit the store, and if I [didn’t] write this story, this whole history would be lost,” says Choi. “This is a part of Canadian history.”

The Choi family moved to Toronto from South Korea in 1975. Choi’s parents worked miscellaneous jobs before saving enough money to buy a variety store on Queen Street West.

What distinguishes the immigrant experience of Koreans, says Choi, is that they had to bounce from neighbourhood to neighbourhood to compete in the convenience store market. Owning a mom-and-pop shop was unlike having a restaurant, which could exist alongside others on the same block.

“We were scattered all over Toronto. We got to experience and live in every pocket,” says Choi. “It gave us insight into Toronto on a bigger level . . . And in some ways, it helped us integrate.”

They led a somewhat “nomadic” life. Moving was dictated by the rising and falling fortunes of the family business.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“It gave us insight into Toronto on a bigger level . . . And in some ways, it helped us integrate.”[/quote]

Mixing family and business

The store demanded so much of the family that Choi says it was like their “baby.”

Looking after the store barely gave them time to unwind together. There were no family dinners and no socializing until after the convenience store closed at midnight.

“We were all very aware that we needed the baby to thrive because our success depended on it,” she says.

It was only when she became a mother herself that Choi says she fully appreciated the courage and nerve it took her mother to run a store that was always at risk of being robbed.

“It’s hard not to be resentful [growing up], but looking back, I realize she must have been so afraid, but she didn’t show it,” says Choi.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]The store demanded so much of the family that Choi says it was like their “baby.”[/quote]

Taking on taboo topics

At a Toronto Public Library event organized as part of its eh List Author series, Choi recalls how she came to write the book, which explores the relationship between mother and daughter.

It took a little nudging from a former student back in 2007, says Choi, who works as a high-school guidance counsellor. She explains how he flipped the question about his ambitions back at her and persuaded her to fulfill her dreams.

“I told him I wanted to write a book, and he challenged me to do that,” she says.

For five years, she would write after her family went to bed at night. “It seemed safer to delve into the Korean psyche when it was quiet,” she says.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“We’re very guarded about sharing pain.”[/quote]

She took several writing courses, eventually graduating from the University of Toronto’s creative writing program in 2012. Her final project, Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety, was presented before a literary panel and earned the attention of renowned editor Phyllis Bruce, who acquired the novel for Simon & Schuster.

What struck her editor, Choi explains, was that the book tackled themes of depression and anxiety from the perspective of a Korean-Canadian.

As universal as people’s struggles with mental health issues are, for Choi and other Korean women she interviewed, such anxieties were rooted in a deep resentment toward their mothers. They were seen as an “obstacle” to their desire to be Canadian.

Although aspects of Korean culture have become mainstream, literature still lags behind K-Pop and kimchi in popularity.

This is what partly led Wai, a Chinese-Canadian immigrant, to Choi’s library reading.

“I’m interested in literary diversity,” she says. “I’d like to hear about the Korean experience. Most of it is a universal theme, but it would be nice to hear different perspectives.”

Choi hopes her book will open up the space for other Korean writers who are reluctant to share their experiences.

“There’s a little bit of fear,” she says, adding there are things that Korean Canadians as a cultural group do not discuss.

“We’re very guarded about sharing pain. It’s one thing to share music, food, but stories are so intensely personal.”

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Published in Books
Thursday, 02 June 2016 03:25

Rediscovering Toronto's Lost Chinatown

by Beatrice Paez in Toronto 

Tucked behind Toronto City Hall’s curved towers, on Elizabeth Street, is a modest patch of greenery outfitted with bright red benches and blossoming tulips. It’s from this spot — once a parking lot— that historian Arlene Chan reconstructs an image of Toronto’s first Chinatown.

Chan draws on a mix of personal history and research to inform her audience, who joined her Heritage Toronto tour of Old Chinatown on May 14.  A librarian turned writer, Chan offers a glimpse into the lives of the city’s early Chinese immigrants. 

“Why was there a Chinatown? Why was there such a tight-knit community?” asks Chan, before answering her own question. “It was because the Chinese were isolated. ”

Chinatown emerged out of necessity, with different associations providing social services, whether it came to finding a place to live or borrowing startup capital for their business, she says. 

The origins of Toronto’s Chinatown

Today’s Elizabeth Street bears little resemblance to the lively stretch it had been in the 1930s. Gone are the streetcar tracks, the destination restaurants and the Chinese-owned laundry services that made it Chinatown’s first core.

Chan takes the tour group through several stops, starting with Old City Hall, where she points to the pillars carved with faces of municipal politicians and immigrants — including the Chinese — and then coming full circle at New City Hall.

The area and its surroundings (known as The Ward) was from the 1840s to the Second World War, a gateway community for Toronto’s new arrivals. Successive waves of immigrant communities— Jews, Poles, Italians and the Irish—all passed through. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“You live here, you’ve worked here all your life, but you’re not a citizen.”[/quote]

Up until the end of the Second World War, the movement of Chinese immigrants in and out of the country had been regulated—first with prohibitive head taxes and then with documents called CI-9s, head tax certificates that were one of the first pieces of photo IDs in Canada.

“They were passports before passports were introduced,” says Lily Cho, professor at York University, in an interview. “These were documents explicitly used to identify people who weren’t given the rights of citizenship. You live here, you’ve worked here all your life, but you’re not a citizen.”

When the Exclusion Act, which banned immigration from China, was repealed in 1947, so too were CI-9s.

Canada’s adoption of the immigration point system in 1967 enabled Hong Kong entrepreneurs to invest in Chinatown at Dundas. 

Redevelopment threatens historic Chinatown

But by the 1940s, the City of Toronto began eyeing the land as a crucial site for redevelopment, the linchpin for its plans to build a new city hall and civic square. Not only was it in close proximity to the seat of government, but The Ward was also considered a slum.

Media reports depicted an unsavoury climate riddled with crime and prostitution, an area dotted with overcrowded tenements and ramshackle storefronts.

“The Ward was considered an undesirable place; it had a bad reputation,” says Chan.

The City expropriated two-thirds of Chinatown, forcing property owners to disperse or relocate their business to Dundas and Spadina streets, explains Chan.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“The Ward was considered an undesirable place; it had a bad reputation.”[/quote]

“They moved to establish their new buildings and facilities nearby, but that destroyed a lot of significant landmarks,” says Jack Leong, director of the Hong Kong-Canada library at the University of Toronto, in a separate interview. 

By then, about 55 per cent of the property in Chinatown was Chinese-owned, says Chan. “People who had paid a certain amount for the real estate were not fairly compensated. They didn’t get fair market value for the land.” 

What remained was a strip of unremarkable storefronts and forgettable restaurants, with little hint of its significance as the site where most Chinese immigrants settled into their new life. 

The fight to save Chinatown 

Seen through Chan’s eyes, Elizabeth Street looms large in the imagination. It’s where her parents, Jean and Doyle Lumb, opened their famed establishment, Kwong Chow restaurant. It’s also the last frontier on which the fight to preserve Chinatown was waged.

Together with other community leaders, Jean organized the Save Chinatown Committee in 1967.

The campaign mobilized in response to the city’s intention to acquire what was left of Chinatown. Council ultimately decided to preserve what was left, which also allowed Chinatown to be extended to where it is now, says Chan.

“My strong feeling was that it was [actually] because of four restaurants that opened after the Second World War,” she says. “[They] were dramatically different than restaurants in Chinatown earlier—the pre-World War II restaurants were very small, had a very limited menu and catered to the Chinese clientele.”

The “big four” restaurants, Sai Woo, Kwong Chow, Nanking and Lichee Garden, fashioned themselves as classy restaurants that accommodated large parties, offered a Canadian take on Chinese food and provided musical entertainment.

Chinatown also began offering tours around the neighbourhood, which wrapped up with a meal at one of these restaurants.

“All of the owners were prominent members of the Chinese community,” explains Chan. “Because of their leadership and interactions with Canadian society – politicians, celebrities started going to these restaurants. It turned people’s opinions.”

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“Chinatown will endure because it knows how to adapt to survive.”[/quote]

Today’s Chinatown is still bound together by a shared culture and similar values, notes Leong. But Chan and Leong say that Chinatown is always in a state of flux.

Condos have steadily sprung up on the south end of Spadina, notes Chan, along with new restaurants catering to the younger crowd seeking a modern take on Chinese cuisine. Such developments don’t concern Chan, who says Chinatown will endure because it knows how to adapt to survive.

“It’s constantly changing because the community has adapted as things are happening,” says Chan. “[The change] is going to take a while. It’s going to become a hipper part of the city; it’s going to reinvent itself again.”


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Published in History

by Beatrice Paez in Toronto 

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz owes his early literary education to the two local librarians who nurtured his love for reading.   

The all-too-familiar story of unsupportive Dominican immigrant parents equating success with being a doctor applied to him, too, he said. 

Diaz attended public school in a poor community in New Jersey, staffed by overworked teachers with little guidance to spare. He struck an unlikely friendship with two local librarians, though, who handpicked books that they thought he would enjoy.  

“I didn’t receive the traditional mentorship,” Diaz said, addressing a diverse crowd at Mind the Gap: Crossing Imaginary Lines at the Toronto Reference Library. 

Paying it forward 

As part of Poets, Essayists and Novelists (PEN) Canada’s Ideas in Dialogue 2016 series, Diaz engaged in a lively discussion with Sri Lankan-American novelist and fiction writer Sunil Yapa about a writer’s relationship with readers and family, the notion of privilege, and their own upbringing. 

“I did have very close relationships with my librarians, who introduced me to the things that mattered most,” he said. “They meant the world to me.” 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“You still feel the debt you owe the world is enormous – even coming from an immigrant family.”[/quote]

Indebted to the librarians who broadened his outlook, Diaz said he decided years ago to pay-it-forward by helping to create space for other writers of colour in his work as a writing professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and through activism.  

“There were folks who had even less than I did. I found myself wanting to be helpful because part of me was dreaming of that for myself,” he said. “You still feel the debt you owe the world is enormous – even coming from an immigrant family.”  

Resolving conflict in writing 

Family was a natural point of conversation between Yapa and Diaz, who each had their own anxieties about being seen as different. 

For Yapa, it was his dad’s inability to accurately pronounce the expression, “Hunky dory,” which describes something that is satisfactory. Diaz said he grew up “hating all that is Black,” even though he was well aware of his origins.  

That much of his work revolves around family, as Yapa notes, is not lost on Diaz. 

“Families are an evergreen subject,” he said. “We are attracted to the machinations of family because this is the vernacular we speak best.”  

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Diaz said he grew up “hating all that is Black,” even though he was well aware of his origins.[/quote]

In The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, about an overweight, nerdy boy obsessed with science fiction, Diaz mined the familial conflict in his own family by exploring the fraught relationship between mother and daughter in his characters.  

“I had to first imagine not only my sister’s deep problematic relationship with my mother, but I actually had to figure out how they might figure out a way to gain compassion for each other,” he said.  

He added that it was largely a way for him to reconcile his own relationship with his sisters, who had borne the brunt of their mother’s excessive discipline, which he escaped because he was a boy.  

His sisters were punished for coming home at ungodly hours, while he wasn’t. Even as he witnessed this, he said he didn't grasp how it had affected their relationships until he realized he had failed to sympathize with them.   

“It was important to me to maintain the innocence of my privilege,” he said. “People always insist on their innocence when they’re guilty.”  

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“If I have any secret to my artistry, it’s that when I close my eyes, all I see is readers.”[/quote]

A family of readers 

Still broaching the concept of family, Yapa asked whether Diaz was forced to create his own literary family in the absence of one that supported his pursuit of writing. Diaz said unlike most writers, his “natural community” is other readers. 

This is partly because he considers himself a reader before a writer, and partly because he said an author’s most important audience is readers, not other writers. 

“If I have any secret to my artistry, it’s that when I close my eyes, all I see is readers,” he said.  

As a writer, he writes with readers in mind – people who he said are an author’s fiercest defenders and who embrace a book despite its flaws. 

Diaz later fielded questions from the audience – fans and writers alike – wrestling with issues of identity and writing from the margins.  

One woman asked how he contends with the “pressure to get it right” on behalf of his community and other minorities, to which he bluntly responded: “Why torment yourself with this idea that there’s this enormous group of people who need you to get it right? . . . Our work is not going to sing less, it’s not going to right injustice.”  

For writers hoping to use their work to gain their parents’ acceptance, he had this to say: “Know that perhaps it can’t do anything there, but that there may be another young person wrestling with the same question who awaits you. That’s perhaps the family you may save . . . Because I was saved by artists who had never imagined themselves saving me.”

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Published in Books

by Beatrice Paez in Toronto

When Elizabeth Philibert arrived in Montreal as an émigré in 1979, she immediately felt the city would be her closest connection to Haiti. 

The city’s circle of activists quickly embraced Philibert, who had risked her life on the front lines of Haiti’s anti-Duvalier movement. The movement began in opposition to self-declared "President-for-life" Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, and continued against the oppressive regime of his successor and son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. 

Most Canadians may not have heard of Philibert and other Haitian Canadians who, through their collective efforts, influenced Quebec’s cultural and political traditions.

In A Place in the Sun: Haiti, Haitians and the Remaking of Quebec, historian Sean Mills chronicles how the Haitian community, while relegated to the margins, actively challenged the status quo while also finding common ground within it. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]While Quebec was gripped in its fight for sovereignty, Haitians in the province wielded what resources they had to insert themselves into the political debate.[/quote]

Haitians in the Quiet Revolution

Philibert joined the wave of Haitian immigrants who settled in Quebec in the 1960s and 1980s, drawn by shared linguistic and religious ties. She arrived at a time when members of Montreal’s Haitian community were claiming a stake in Quebec’s political future, and Canada’s international affairs.

While Quebec was gripped in its fight for sovereignty, Haitians in the province wielded what resources they had to insert themselves into the political debate. 

“The importance of Haitians was well known among many Haitians, of course, but it wasn’t part of mainstream understandings of the Quiet Revolution and its aftermath,” says Mills, referring to a period in the 1960s during which the province saw the secularization and expansion of the welfare state in sectors such as health care and education. “I was struck by the involvement of Haitians in the waves of political and cultural activism in the 1960s and 1970s, and I wanted to learn more about these developments.”

Mills’ curiosity led him to delve into the written work of the Haitian diaspora and their oral histories, as told by those who had fled the violence under the two Duvalier regimes. He illuminates the ways Haitians sought to elevate their status in Quebec.

Through their vast literary publications, activism and media appeals they set out to upend a political system intent on shutting them out. 

A Place in the Sun revisits history with a new perspective, and succeeds in delivering a nuanced portrait of their lives during a critical juncture in Quebec’s history. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“By entering the political sphere and rupturing its traditional composition, they opened a new space for themselves.”[/quote]

Challenging paternalism 

The first contingent of Haitian exiles came in the 1960s. Most were francophone elites who integrated well into society. The second wave of migrants in the 1970s, representing a poorer class who spoke Creole, faced far more discrimination. 

That they had markedly different experiences speaks to Quebec’s complex perception of Haiti, Mills writes.

Haiti had long held symbolic significance to Quebec, especially in the 1940s as it sought to establish cultural linkages through its Catholic missionary work. Although they were bound by a shared language and colonial legacy, the missionary cause set them on unequal footing. 

It was a relationship defined in familial terms, albeit a paternalistic one, in which Haitians were ridiculed for their religious belief in voodoo and regarded as “childlike” and “devoid of complex thoughts.” 

Mills argues, convincingly, that confined as many were to exploitative occupations in the taxi industry or domestic service, Haitian immigrants refused to be reduced to stereotypes. Instead, they cast themselves as political beings capable of exerting pressure on the government to confront its policies and in some cases, to adopt their cause. 

“They had to fight to find a place for themselves in a political sphere that did not see them as legitimate interlocutors,” Mills writes. “By entering the political sphere and rupturing its traditional composition, they opened a new space for themselves.” 

Culture of activism

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]For the Haitian diaspora, Quebec became a proxy battlefield through which they could undermine support for the Duvalier regimes.[/quote]

It helped that Haitians were attuned enough to know that language can be a potent bargaining chip in Quebec. 

One critical test was the “crisis of 1,500” in 1974, when Haitians mobilized support from diverse groups to quash the deportation of non-status migrants.

They appealed both to the “conscience of the population” and used language strategically to position themselves as “ideal francophone immigrants for modern Quebec.” René Lévesque, as Parti Québécois premier, ultimately endorsed their cause on humanitarian grounds, but also for demographic considerations. 

For the Haitian diaspora, Quebec became a proxy battlefield through which they could undermine support for the Duvalier regimes. They compelled Canada to confront its policy of distributing foreign aid to a dictatorship, which had driven many to flee and was ultimately the root of the migrant crisis. 

These efforts weakened the federal government’s claim that they were merely “economic migrants” as opposed to political refugees. It also served as a rallying cry of solidarity between Quebecers and Haitians, both vying for self-determination. 

Although they’ve made significant strides in improving their conditions, the “asymmetrical relationship” between Quebec and Haiti persists, writes Mills. To this day, many of the organizations Haitian immigrants founded remain an enduring force in integrating new arrivals. 

“[I’m] continually impressed by the incredible vitality of the Haitian community,” says Mills. “It’s certainly a world that is very alive and vibrant to this day.” 

Beatrice Paez is a freelance journalist based in Toronto whose work spans from writing about international development issues to the arts and culture. She also writes a public art column for the Torontoist and co-founded The Origami, an online magazine about Asian Canadians in Toronto.

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Published in Books

by Beatrice Paez in Toronto

It had been such a whirlwind process, Zuhir says of the journey that he and his family took earlier this year from Jordan — where they had lived as refugees for four years — to Canada.

Now that they’re here, Zuhir and his family are one of many that have yet to settle into a normal life in Canada. For now, they remain in a state of limbo, residing at the Toronto Plaza Hotel home and unsure of their next steps in the country.

The Syrian family of seven had been given a month’s notice by the Canadian government to settle their affairs in Jordan. They had no time to even sell their furniture, only to pack their things and leave.

But he has no regrets, says Zuhir, speaking through a translator. 

“Once it happens, you don’t want to lose your chance,” he says. “I’d rather lose the furniture than lose the chance to go to Canada.” 

But the haste in which they left also meant that there was no opportunity for an in-depth orientation on life in Canada, he says. 

He was told to expect a two-week stay at a hotel in Toronto. It’s now been about a month and a half, and they’re still unaware of when they might finally find a place to call their own.

Life at the hotel

Large families like Zuhir’s run into more difficulty when persuading landlords to take them on, explains Abubaker Bennsir, who works at the TARIC Islamic Centre

Settlement groups like COSTI Immigrant Services are currently overwhelmed with cases, which hobbles its ability to help refugees like Zuhir not only find permanent housing, but navigate their new country. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“I’d rather lose the furniture than lose the chance to go to Canada.”[/quote]

Fortunately, TARIC, a convenient three-minute walk from Zuhir’s hotel, extended its community programming this year to help integrate Syrian refugees. It has opened its gym for the children to play soccer in and has held dinners and informal sessions on language training and Canadian culture. 

For Zuhir and his friend Diab-Bakora, visits to TARIC break up the routine of roaming the hotel. “It’s [usually] the restaurant, room and lobby,” says Zuhir, speaking of the places he visits on an average day.

As frustrated as they are that they haven’t quite settled yet, Diab-Bakora says the refugees are fortunate that the hotel is surrounded by a complex of shops, fast-food restaurants and a grocery store. There have also been organized trips to Harbourfront Centre and the Ontario Science Centre.

Experiencing the local community

When families meet with Dr. Paul Caulford, medical director of the Canadian Centre for Refugee and Immigrant Health Care (CRIHC), he advises them to seek out opportunities to get to know the city. 

Caulford says it can help them cope with the uncertainty of adjusting to an unfamiliar place. “I [tell them, I] want you out and about,” he says. “We’re trying to get them exercising, get them out.” 

Since they can’t just hop on the bus or subway in a city which they hardly know and whose language they can’t speak, the Islamic centre pairs families with mentors who help them understand how things work. They’re taught how to take public transit, go to a bank and shop at supermarkets, says Haroon Salamat, chairman of TARIC. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]For Zuhir and his friend Diab-Bakora, visits to TARIC break up the routine of roaming the hotel.[/quote]

There are other practical lessons. For instance, the children have had to learn that garbage is tossed in the can, not on the floor, says Salamat: “We’re using this opportunity to sensitize them to Canadian customs.”

Support from the mosque — which also welcomes Syrian Christian refugees — has given families “a level of comfort” and it has done much to boost their spirits, says Bennsir. 

“They thought they would be somewhere where nobody would understand them,” he comments. 

The centre has helped act as their translators and interlocutor. It has tried, for instance, to get the kitchen to prepare food that reminded the children of home. Some refugees have volunteered to cook occasionally, but staff had to politely decline because of health and safety considerations. 

Taking steps towards integration

Although most have not been vocal in their complaints, Salamat can sense that many refugees are anxious about moving forward, and the children are eager to enrol in school. 

Zuhir's and Diab-Bakora’s children attend a school nearby, but they say they’re not formally integrated and that the school is more like a daycare because it doesn’t offer ESL training. 

Diab-Bakora is hopeful that once they secure housing, schooling won’t be an issue.

For children who have to overcome trauma, getting them back to school is the best approach to managing their PTSD, says Caulford. He’s met with a six-year-old boy who has been unable to speak since he witnessed the killing of his uncle in Syria. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Salamat can sense that many refugees are anxious about moving forward.[/quote]

“[The way] to get the boy talking is to throw him [in] with a group of his peers in a classroom,” says Caulford. “That hasn’t happened yet for four weeks now. We’re frustrated with that.”

While many adults are still reluctant to confront the trauma they’ve endured by opening up to a counsellor or seeking treatment, Caulford notes that they’re much more willing to avail of the special clinic for their children. 

“They don’t want to get bogged down. They’re focused on getting food on the table,” he says. “It’s a defence mechanism. If we were to encourage [them] to come out now, we could really hobble their progress. They would start becoming more depressed.” 

In the meantime, places like the Islamic centre are focusing their efforts on providing another refuge for the Syrians while they wait.  

“The kids play a bit of soccer. We’re teaching them a few words in English,” Salamat says. “It keeps the kids out of mischief and running around aimlessly. We want them to feel that things are moving along.”

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Published in Top Stories
Thursday, 17 March 2016 15:24

Breaking Silence Around Elder Abuse

by Beatrice Paez in Toronto

Asking seniors subtle questions about their daily routines opens up dialogue – and can point to signs of elder abuse, which rarely reveals itself in obvious ways.

Nirpal Bhangoo-Sekhon often asks seniors she meets about what they’ve been eating, who handles their finances and if their basic needs are being met. It is her job as case manager of the Punjabi Community Health Services (PCHS) to be curious.

“Unfortunately, if we don't ask those questions, we wouldn't know what's happening,” she says. “It gives you a better picture of what goes on at home.”

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Abuse isn't limited to physical violence; it can extend to the withholding of financial resources, verbal threats and isolation from the household.[/quote]

In a 2009 report, Statistics Canada found that two-thirds of seniors who experienced family violence – physical force or threats – didn't sustain injuries. Seniors most at risk, based on reports to the police, are between 65 and 74.  

During her one-on-one meetings with seniors, Bhangoo-Sekhon will also illustrate scenarios to raise awareness of how common an issue elder abuse is. Holding such conversations regularly helps ease reservations about breaking their silence, which can take months, if not longer, she says. 

Reluctance to speak up

While elder abuse cuts across different cultural groups, they may contend with different obstacles. 

Language barriers and distrust in the police – mostly worries about being deported – aren't the only concerns stacked heavily against the decision to come forward, says Kripa Sekhar, the executive director of the South Asian Women's Centre (SAWC) in Toronto.

There's the perception that speaking out would fracture family ties and bring shame on the community. 

“I don't think they want to be seen as a community that's going to expose their families or seen as betraying their families," says Sekhar. "They've almost accepted that ‘this is what's meant for me.’”

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Cultural groups have different attitudes about what constitutes abuse.[/quote]

Burial customs can also play a role in the struggle to come forward for seniors of certain faiths.  

With funeral rites traditionally being the responsibility of the son or a male family member, some express concern that their spiritual needs will not be looked after if they speak out, says Sekhar. “They're not worried about today. They're worried about the afterlife. It's hard to understand that – you're struggling in this life, but it's such a part of who they are.”

Abuse isn't limited to physical violence; it can extend to the withholding of financial resources, verbal threats and isolation from the household, she explains. 

Statistical profiles on elder abuse as it relates to the South Asian community aren't traced by front-line agencies such as the police and social services. Statistics Canada instead analyzes the prevalence of family violence along gender lines, while acknowledging that cultural groups have different attitudes about what constitutes abuse.

Possibilities for intervention

The immediate response to cases of physical abuse might be to find alternative housing, but in other instances, intervention through education is crucial, says Bhangoo-Sekhon.  

"If we can go in and educate the families – that, in the end, would be much more helpful and useful for the community than just pulling seniors out [of the home] and placing them in shelters," she says. 

Finding subsidized housing or placing elders in shelters isn't always the most feasible solution in cases of neglect or isolation, particularly if they're not used to living independently and are in need of a personal support worker, she says. 

PCHS has a caregiver support program, an extension of its efforts to address elder abuse, which is offered to those who are caring for family members. It is intended to relieve the strain of household demands. The program attempts to engender a culture of empathy, recognizing that the caregiver may be stressed, while getting him or her to understand the vulnerabilities that seniors face. 

"We help them understand the aging process," says Bhangoo-Sekhon, adding that changes in a senior's behaviour may create friction within the family if it's not recognized as a health issue.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]"Housing for seniors should be guaranteed. They need enough funding to live in dignity."[/quote]

"[It's to help] them understand what's happening to their body, their brain, and that's out of their control."

Networks for seniors living alone

SAWC, through its community network, tries to locate housing for seniors so they can live independently, but finding affordable housing can take an average of seven years, according to the Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association. Thirty per cent of seniors make up the wait list, as cited by the Toronto Star from the organization's 2015 report.

Sekhar communicates regularly with seniors who live independently and tries to ensure that their landlords are responsive to building safety issues. "Many say they do that, but their concerns aren't always attended to," she says. 

SAWC holds a seniors’ workshop every Thursday where they can gather to discuss health and safety issues, along with abuse. It's a support network for seniors who live on their own, where they feel comfortable conversing in their mother tongue, says Sekhar. 

"Housing for seniors should be guaranteed," says Sekhar. "They need enough funding to live in dignity."

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Published in Health

by Beatrice Paez in Toronto

Journalists can pay a high price with their reputations for reporting on the polarizing, decades-old Israel-Gaza conflict.

That was the message journalist and author Max Blumenthal delivered at Embattled Truths: Reporting on Gaza, a presentation at the Toronto Reference Library on Feb. 25 as part of Freedom to Read Week.

As the platforms for gathering news become more sophisticated in delivering customized information to readers, there’s a risk of readers insulating themselves from divergent views, said Olivia Ward, the Toronto Star’s foreign affairs reporter, who moderated the talk hosted by Poets, Essayists and Novelists (PEN) Canada.

Blumenthal’s critics have accused him of disseminating propaganda through his reporting on Gaza.

PEN stood its ground against calls to cancel the event, citing its efforts to defend free speech.

“There are hard questions that require a great deal of debate, and it isn’t always polite,” says Randy Boyagoda, president of PEN Canada. “We fight for the right to make it possible.”

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Blumenthal’s critics have accused him of disseminating propaganda through his reporting on Gaza.[/quote]

Embattled Truths was a discussion of Blumenthal’s critique of mainstream media, the challenges of covering the Gaza Strip and his own privileges as an American Jew from an upper-middle class family with ties to the Clintons.

Controversial discussion

Anticipating heated confrontations between Blumenthal and his critics, a modest police presence was on standby to rein in on any disruptions from the crowd. Interruptions —from both the pro-Israel lobby, including members of the Jewish Defense League, and Blumenthal's own defenders — staggered his exchange with Ward and the question-and-answer session with the audience.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]For Blumenthal, there’s no avoiding bias — even as journalists — in the coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.[/quote]

There were repeated calls to boot individuals from opposing sides as Blumenthal’s detractors challenged his view of Israel as an aggressor and his assertion that what was happening between Israel and Palestine was “a conquest, not a conflict.” His critics — who came with placards showing the photo of a jihadi with the words, “This is not a victim” — questioned why he was not reporting about terror attacks against Israelis as well.

Activist journalism

For Blumenthal, there’s no avoiding bias — even as journalists — in the coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“The way I see my journalism on this issue is, I’m involved in a campaign,” he said. “Information on this issue is very difficult to obtain. There isn’t much of a counter-narrative, and the Palestinian narrative, which I have found to be closer to reality, is frozen out.”

A self-described advocacy journalist, he defends his embattled credibility on the basis that his reporting is grounded in facts.

“I rise and fall on whether I’m presenting facts,” he said. “[People] spend so much time trying to characterize my views as slander or slurs, instead of actually addressing the facts of my book.”

Blumenthal’s recently released book, the 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza, is a first-hand examination of the military conflict in Gaza in 2014, or as the Israeli Defense Force calls it, “Operation Protective Edge.”

Efforts to undermine his work by framing him an anti-Semite, he said, cheapen its meaning, making it difficult to condemn real acts of anti-Semitism when it surfaces.

Choosing sides

When asked about the challenges of reporting on Gaza, Blumenthal said it goes beyond the financial obstacles newsrooms face and personal risks journalists are willing to take.

Asked by Ward about whether the fact that journalists have had to chase “moving targets” as news breaks elsewhere and parachute into other conflict zones was a factor, Blumenthal said he’s not beholden to the 24-hour news cycle, which allows him to probe the issue further.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“Palestinians who seek to do what I’m doing can easily be painted as terrorists, Islamists or ignored."[/quote]

His focus on gaining unfettered access to Gaza and covering the conflict in 2014 from inside, he said, provides a counterweight to what he characterizes as a cultural problem that newsrooms face when reporters are more immersed in Israel and are prone to “absorb the anxieties of the people they’re around, which is often the Jewish-Anglo community.”

Ward noted that his stature plays a considerable role in amplifying his voice, whereas Palestinians may have more difficulty getting heard.

Blumenthal agreed that his background has made his writing difficult to ignore, with the pro-Israel lobby trying to make “an example of him” to young Jews who might decide to follow his lead.

While accounts of personal narratives from the Palestinian side are chronicled, what’s rare is an overarching analysis from them, said Blumenthal. “The narration usually falls more to people like me.

“Palestinians who seek to do what I’m doing can easily be painted as terrorists, Islamists or ignored because they’re [seen as] simply being loyal to their people,” he said.

Then there’s the struggle faced by young Palestinian writers who have never seen the world beyond Gaza.

“[They’re asking] how can we write for the people in the West to explain our experiences because we have never left Gaza?” said Blumenthal. “You’re wondering what the outside world is like.”

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Published in Books

by Beatrice Paez in Toronto

Disoriented and anxious after a long journey from Beirut to Montreal, a Syrian refugee suddenly began running through the airport welcome centre, speaking frantically in his mother tongue. Staffers tasked with distributing winter care packages looked on apprehensively, unsure of how to approach the man. 

What could have escalated into a tense situation was defused by two on-site interpreters who were able to calm the refugee down, says Jack Xu, project manager at Multilingual Community Interpretation Services (MCIS), a non-profit enterprise that is exclusively providing interpreters for flights carrying Syrian refugees to Toronto and Montreal.

“They didn’t know he had special needs,” explains Yasmine Mousa, one of the supervising interpreters in Toronto. “They didn’t know he was repeating himself on and on.”

It’s circumstances like these where interpreters step in, despite their orders to remain impartial. They're only meant to assist refugees by lending their voices, not their advice.

“When these situations arise, it’s almost a call for humanitarian assistance,” says Xu. 

The importance and challenge of impartiality

Impartiality is sacrosanct for professional interpreters who are bound to confidentiality and barred from offering their opinions when doing their work. Even simply correcting misinformation one refugee had about Calgary being warmer than Toronto isn’t allowed, says Mousa.

“The only role of an interpreter is to be a conduit of information, to translate back and forth,” says Xu. “We’re not allowed to give additional information or advice.” 

Mousa and Hadeel Abu-Gharbieh lead a team of 54 interpreters who greet planeloads of 150 to 300 Syrian refugees each week as part of the Trudeau government’s commitment to resettle 25,000 by February 29 this year.  

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“We’re not allowed to give additional information or advice."[/quote]

As the first point of contact for refugees in their new home, interpreters are peppered with questions meant for settlement agencies on housing, schooling and medical services. 

There’s a disconnect between their expectations and how much information is given beforehand, say Abu-Gharbieh and Mousa. Many are “clueless” about the next steps, and are anxiously awaiting word on which city is prepared to welcome them and how long they will have to stay in the hotel they’re currently billeted in.

“There’s an impulse to help and do more, but the thing professional interpreters understand is that we’re just interpreters,” says Xu. “We don’t want them to become too invested, because you lose your impartiality.”

And so they bring these concerns to government staff. 

Stepping up to meet the influx

Just as the pace of the refugees’ arrival has overwhelmed settlement agencies’ efforts to find lodging, MCIS scrambles daily to attend to last-minute requests for interpreters in Montreal.

Transition flights are tricky for Xu, who explains that he’s often given less than 24 hours’ notice about when they’re departing because it’s dependent on which provinces are ready to accept them. 

In Montreal, where Red Cross oversees their settlement, there’s a shortage of Arabic-speaking staff, whereas in Toronto, there’s a network of neighbourhood agencies to rely on. This has put a strain on MCIS’ operations in Montreal, whose interpreters are dispatched beyond airports to hospitals, hotels and other government agencies. 

Xu says it’s beyond Red Cross control, given the looming deadline. What has helped alleviate the pressure of keeping up with demands has been the interpreters’ tireless enthusiasm for the project, he says.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Interpreters are peppered with questions meant for settlement agencies on housing, schooling and medical services.[/quote]

“There’s something magical about this project,” says Abu-Gharbieh. “People try to be there all the time. They don’t want to miss out.”

For one interpreter, says Xu, it was a way for him to make “halal money,” or to work for a good cause. He says that many are prepared to work 12- or 14-hour days. 

Spirits were incredibly high on Dec. 31 even when everyone had to pull a 36-hour shift as they waited for five flights to arrive, say Mousa and Abu-Gharbieh. 

“It was a meaningful way to spend New Year’s Eve,” says Abu-Gharbieh.

Increased demand for translators moving forward

Xu projects that Arabic will overtake Mandarin as the most-requested language to interpret in 2016 — without factoring in the refugee project — because agencies like Toronto Public Health have their own need for interpreters. 

Right now, MCIS has a database of 820 Arabic interpreters across the country, most either in Toronto or Montreal, to mobilize. 

Their interpreters take a six-week, 100-hour program and are given terms to familiarize themselves with in order to work alongside government agents.

He anticipates the demand will only grow as they settle down, especially if the government decides to open interim lodging centres at military bases in Kingston, Ontario and Val Cartier, Quebec. That would mean finding the right interpreters nearby who can speak in the same dialect as the new arrivals. 

Mousa says she felt a sense of pride as an Iraqi immigrant to belong to a country that’s eager to welcome refugees, particularly when her native country chose to align with the Assad regime. “It means something to me to help them in one very small way.”

An interpreter’s work is often solitary, but with this project, many have formed strong bonds, says Xu. He’s looking for ways they can continue to work together. 

“I’m hoping we can help with resettlement […] acting as cultural experts,” he says. “We’re looking at that down the road. I don’t want to break apart the team.”

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Published in Top Stories

by Beatrice Paez in Toronto

When Syrian refugee children arrive in Canadian classrooms for the very first time, the anxiety they feel might be more than simply first-day-of-school jitters, say humanitarian relief workers and health-care providers.  

Many may be experiencing the trauma of loss and displacement after months, if not years, of being out of school. Despite this stress, heading back to class is the best course to establishing a sense of normalcy, says Patricia Erb, CEO of Save the Children, a global humanitarian agency.   

"The children have gone through incredible trauma. They've seen people die, their schools being bombed," says Erb. "Getting into a school is getting back to a normal life. That's what they beg for.”

The role of psychosocial programs

Ontario is expected to absorb about 4,000 of the 10,000 refugees expected to arrive by year's end. The federal government plans to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees across Canada by February 2016.

Nearly five years into the Syrian conflict, as many as 2.2 million children are living as refugees, with limited access to education and psychological support. In a recent report titled Childhood in the Shadow of War, Save the Children says that one in four Syrian refugee children are at risk of developing a mental health disorder.   

Psychosocial programs, which can involve art or play therapy, have helped children make sense of what happened and build their resilience, says Erb.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]"The children have gone through incredible trauma. They've seen people die, their schools being bombed."[/quote]

And yet these initiatives often receive the least funding, as resources in host countries are stretched thin, says the report.   

In tents reserved as safe spaces for children at refugee camps, Save the Children runs activities where the children are asked to draw or dramatize their experiences. Their sketches can provide a glimpse into their emotional state.  

"In their drawings, there's blood, body parts that are separated," she says. "You see the war."   

The impacts of trauma

While visiting a refugee camp in Jordan, Erb was struck by the behaviour of three- and four-year-olds. "They were coaxed to eat their snacks, but they just wanted to put it in their backpacks. They had that memory of not having enough food."

The stress of poverty — of seeing their parents unable to work, living in informal settlements — is cited in the report as being the primary source of their psychosocial distress. In some cases, children become prone to aggressive behaviour and substance abuse, the report finds.   

Trauma manifests itself in different ways, and for children, their somatic (physical) symptoms are more pronounced than with adults, says Dr. Tony Barozzino, a pediatrician at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]"In their drawings, there's blood, body parts that are separated."[/quote]

"The emotional, psychological symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) are being experienced or seen as physical symptoms," he explains. "[There's] abdominal pain, chronic headaches, school refusal, which is an underlying sign of significant anxiety, [and] nightmares."   

Depending on the severity of their distress, kids may be referred to psychiatrists for evaluation, counselling or medication therapy, he says. Barozzino's colleague, psychiatrist Dr. Morton Beiser, is piloting a program for refugees based on Narrative Exposure Therapy (NET), which was developed in Germany 25 years ago to treat PTSD.   

The program, Lending a Hand to Our Future, which will run in eight clinics in Toronto, is suited for children and youth, between the ages of seven and 15. It involves eight to 10 sessions, lasting about an hour, led by trained volunteers in the health-care field. NET is billed as a way for patients to recover their identity.

"They're literally walked through their migration story," he explains. "It helps them understand the situation, get rid of the internalized stress that comes from that. [. . .] It has a very good response rate and very few individuals require further treatment.”

Supporting children at school

What's crucial is for health-care providers, educators and social workers to look out for symptoms, so children who are suffering can be referred to appropriate services, says Barozzino.

The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) is working to anticipate Syrian children’s needs by linking with community partners to outline programs to ease the transition. That includes tip sheets for teachers on class activities, advice on dealing with potential stressors and plans to hold lunch-and-learn sessions.   

"You don't want the kids to feel like they have a broken wing," says Marcia Powers-Dunlop, interim senior manager of professional support services at TDSB. "So you want to have as many normalizing activities as possible."   

Amid all the anticipation surrounding the children’s arrival, many Torontonian schoolchildren are eager to find ways to relate to their new classmates. Some wonder if they can bring toys to share. Others want to know if it's appropriate to ask about their experience.    

"Some kids struggle to think that they're kids just like them," says Powers-Dunlop. "I say, 'They're boys and girls like you. They have the same fears, the same hopes, the same joys.’"

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Published in Education
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