Saturday, 24 February 2018 19:09

Commanding Respect in a Classroom

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.

Childcare responsibilities 

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.”

Older teachers

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

This piece is part of the "Ethnic Women as Active Participants in Ontario" series. Writers interested in participating are encouraged to join the NCM Collective for an opportunity.

Published in Education

Commentary by: Mona Mashadi Rajabi in Tehran

I was standing in front of the school’s office and Melody, my daughter, was right beside me. All the children were passing by happily with their parents.

The principal gave me the registration forms and started to talk about the rules and regulations of the school. I was there to register Melody in junior kindergarten.

While I was filling out one of the forms, the principal pointed to an important part and said: “Please write two phone numbers of family members or trusted people, the people whom we can call in case of an emergency.” He continued, “if something comes up, there must be someone other than you and your husband that we can call.”

But, there was no one else to call and it made me nervous. I explained that my family was new in the country and no other family members or trusted friends to call. It was just us, I said, promising to be available Melody needed help. 

My daughter's big moment

I was busy attending preparation classes at university when the big day for Melody arrived. It was her First Day at school. Parents were supposed to be available to accompany their children to help them get ready for a milestone moment in their young lives. Parents were expected to give the children a goodbye kiss and wish them a good First Day at school.

It was a big moment for my daughter, a four-year-old girl who wanted to start the journey of her life, but, sadly, I could not be there to support her.

I had to attend a lecture, so I left home early in the morning and my husband took her to school. I learned that the principal was so surprised because of my absence as I missed the most memorable day of my daughter’s education. It was the day that would never come back and the memory that would not be repeated in the future.

Feeling absent

After a few months, Melody’s teacher invited the parents to talk about their children’s behaviour and performance in school, and I missed that occasion, too. I missed it because I had an exam on the same day and I had to be at the university.

My absence from my daughter’s life sadly continued. She became sick and I was at my office in the university for my teaching assistant job. She attended the school’s Halloween party and I was busy preparing for my mid-term exams.

She started to speak English and I was not there to witness it, she started to learn French and sing some short songs and I was not there to enjoy it, she found friends and I could not be there to celebrate her friendships, she got invited to her friends’ birthday parties and I could not accompany her, and she went to the playgrounds and I was too tired to play along with her.

I was never available for her, as I was either busy at school or tired at home.

My wish list

I was unhappy and unsatisfied deep inside as I was living a dual life. A life of a full time Ph.D. student who had to work all day long and the life of a mother who was supposed to raise a happy and healthy child but was missing all the precious moments of her daughter’s childhood.

It was not just me in this situation. Many international graduate students with children felt the same as they were alone and had no family or close friends around to help them. They were always busy at school and could not attend to the needs of their children. Many of my colleagues felt like a failure as a parent and lived in an unstable emotional and financial situation in Canada.

I thought about alternative solutions that could help parents like myself who were also full-time students.

I wished the university’s educational calendar started one day after the First Day of children’ school. I wished the schoolteacher could give a couple of choices to parents from which they could choose the one that fit their schedule to speak about the children’s performance at school. I wished the university’s teaching schedule was more flexible and professors cared more about graduate students who had a big responsibility as a parent specially when they had to work as a teaching assistant.

Those were the thoughts that occupied my mind, but they remained a wish list.

Finally, an unbalanced life

Unfortunately, I could do little about my circumstances. The university expected me to be a full time student and a failure at school could lead to the termination of my student visa and eventually an order to me to leave Canada. My husband and Melody were my dependent and a change in my status could have changed theirs as well.

So, I, like most of other international graduate students, had to sacrifice my family life in order to stay in Canada on my student visa. This was an unfair deal for a parent graduate student.

Mona Mashhadi Rajabi holds a Master’s degree in economics. As a business journalist living in Tehran, she has written for publications such as Donyay-e-eghtesad, Tejarat-e-farda, Jahan-e-sanat and Ireconomy.  

Published in Education

By: Sara Asalya in Toronto, ON

Newcomers to Canada face numerous challenges from the moment they land; most significantly managing their finances and successfully transitioning within their respective careers. In the majority of cases, acquiring a Canadian education or certification can be the only pathway to enter the local job market. However, given their limited financial resources and the various barriers to essential services, they can be in serious risk of losing their savings and wasting years of their life trying to get back on track. Consequently, they find themselves facing two choices: either start from scratch by going back to school, or accept a low-wage survival job to support their families. In many cases, newcomers don’t have the resources and financial means to access education. I was one of the immigrants who chose to go back to school and obtain some Canadian credentials. 

But how in the first place did I end up being an immigrant in Canada? If ever there was a day that has been burned into my memory, it is Dec 27th, 2008. The first day of the 2008 war on Gaza and the day that changed my life forever. As a Palestinian, I was born and raised in a war-torn country and thus war was familiar to me. However, a time came when the familiar became unfamiliar—when the bombings destroyed my home at the time I had become a new mother. After witnessing 40 days of war and violence in Gaza and losing my childhood home, friends and family members; I decided that I no longer wanted to live there and raise my children in this nightmare. Brushing shoulders with death left an irreversible impact on me. 

Arriving safely in Canada with my family was the beginning of a new journey. I thought all my fears and nightmares were behind me now. But the reality was different. There was a fear and uncertainty of the future. Where to go? How to start? And what do I want? To summarize, what I have learned from my first couple of months in Canada is that it all comes down to your Canadian credentials and who you know to find a job here. With zero connections and no Canadian references or experience, I decided to go back to school and gain some Canadian credentials that might open doors for me.  

In 2015, I enrolled in the Community Engagement, Leadership and Development post graduate certificate at Ryerson University. My educational experience here was not an easy one. On my first day of school, I was stressed because I looked different than everyone I saw walking in the corridors. In my classes, I seemed to be the only mother and mature student whose first language was not English. I felt lost and lonely. I nervously spent two weeks preparing for my first three-minute presentation. I finished my presentation in less than a minute and I just wanted the earth to swallow me. I persevered, worked hard, and finished my certificate with a GPA of 3.96 out of 4. 

Who was that person who was so insecure to do a three-minute presentation two years ago? In the short time of two years, I went from being anxious about a short presentation to being a leader who moderates panel discussions and accepts speaking invitations from Toronto colleges and local media outlets. This is more like the person I was before I came to Canada and someone I relate to as ‘me’.  So why did it take me, then, a new immigrant, this time to navigate this system and return to my former self? There seems to be a fundamental lack of accessible support systems in higher education institutions for people like me, adult immigrant students who need to regain their confidence through adequate information, engagement and empowerment. No one should experience wanting the earth to just swallow them up.

My first-hand experience in a Canadian university campus has prompted me to make changes at Ryerson for the community of new immigrants of which I am a part. I formed the Newcomer Students’ Association of Ryerson (NSAR); the first student group of its kind for newcomer, immigrant and refugee students. I dedicated much of my time to empower this immigrant community with a special focus on their higher education experiences. Moreover, I managed to create the “NSAR Scholarship” for newcomer and adult immigrant students to empower and help them in their educational journeys. One of the biggest challenges I faced as an adult immigrant student was finding a community that I could belong to while re-positioning my identity. Through the group I formed at Ryerson, I aim to build an inclusive community for newcomer and adult immigrant students to help them create their own spaces.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Even though Ryerson has been a leader in supporting immigrant and refugee communities, I believe it has the capacity to do so much more.[/quote]

After I enrolled at Ryerson, I noticed the increasing need to create a support and transition system for newcomer and immigrant students at postsecondary institutions. I also noticed the service gap. There was no system in place nor policies or programs to support my community at Ryerson. Even though Ryerson has been a leader in supporting immigrant and refugee communities, I believe it has the capacity to do so much more. In light of the changing landscape, I think Ryerson University can take a leadership position in changing policies and providing programming for newcomers to facilitate their post-secondary experiences.

Education is a core sector for human development and access to higher level of education can have an extraordinary, long-term and far-reaching impact on empowering communities. Universities should, therefore, invest in creating support systems for migrant students to ease their transition and integration process. 

NSAR aims to build an inclusive community on the Ryerson campus that promotes community development and involvement. Our vision is of an inclusive society that values the skills and contributions of newcomers, immigrants, and their allies and actively engenders a sense of belonging within communities.

My team and I work to help newcomer and immigrant students make a smooth transition into the Canadian education system by providing peer support, cultural integration, information sessions, and networking events. Moreover, we help them in their pursuits educationally and professionally. My team also works on researching the challenges facing newcomer and adult immigrant students at Ryerson by soliciting feedback from these students to provide recommendations to the school. Most recently, we organized an international students' conference for the first time, that focused on the experiences of newcomers, immigrants, and refugees who had moved on to pursue higher educations. We also collaborated with the Scope radio at Ryerson University to create our own radio show that will host migrant students to learn about the challenges they face and their needs in higher education institutions. We also tend to look at the broader picture and analyze some of the immigration policies that might hinder newcomer integration and prevent them from accessing education. 

NSAR has a special focus on immigrant women and that is why we established the “empowering immigrant women club”. The Ryerson club was established when we noticed a large number of female ethnic students struggled to attend their classes because of the lack of an affordable child-care system. Newcomers can’t afford to pay the high costs of childcare and education simultaneously, which results in many of these women dropping courses and eventually withdrawing from university. This club creates a support system for these women by offering free childcare, peer support and professional development. All women in the club work to back each other and build a self-sufficient support system.

Based on my first daunting encounter with the Canadian education system, I would have never thought that I would understand it or navigate through it, let alone flourish and achieve my potential. I made a promise to myself that I will always strive to help make this experience as welcoming and as accommodating as possible for every immigrant and newcomer to this country who has the desire and ability to pursue their passions and dreams.

Sara Alysa is the founder and president of the Newcomer Students’ Association of Ryerson (NSAR) as well as the Vice President of Events and Outreach at the Continuing Education Students' Association of Ryerson (CESAR). Her main interests are in looking at the experiences of migrant students in higher education and what post-secondary institutions offer for these students. 

Published in Commentary
Wednesday, 29 November 2017 01:41

My Life in a Suitcase

Commentary by: Mona Mashhadi Rajabi in Tehran, Iran

I was standing in front of my suitcase and thought about what I had packed into it. I had one suitcase for my documents and their certified translations, as well as one suitcase for my clothes and other personal belongings.

Two suitcases for a person who wanted to move to another country and pursue Ph.D. studies. A person who had lived 32 years in her home country and had a history in that place. 

I assumed that the most important things that I could carry with me were the documents that spoke to my education and work history.  

All the important documents that I gathered in my life were in a suitcase. They included my certificates, recommendation letters, writing samples, medical documents, especially those of my daughter, and the identity documents of my three-member-family: my husband, my daughter, and I. 

I also had to pack up the university documents as I wanted to pursue my study and they were required in order to register in the program. So I put my Master's and Bachelor's degrees as well as my transcripts in the suitcase. 

I prepared all the documents and certified translations of my bank accounts, even going as far as including the deed to my apartment in Tehran. 

With all of my documents piled into in one suitcase, the thought struck me: “Is this really all I have gained in my life?”

How could I prove myself to the people who neither know me nor my country? 

Would Canada recognize my documents?

So I packed everything and moved to Canada.

Foreign credentials

Following registration, the start of the program revealed that most of the newly admitted Ph.D. students would be required to enroll in some of the foundational courses from the Master's program due to their foreign credentials. The move signified that their foreign Master's degrees were not fully recognized.

The documents that illustrated what I had been doing professionally were not useful at all either. After surfing the Internet and talking to many people who had been living in Canada for many years, I learned that without “Canadian work experience” it would be difficult to find a good job. 

So none of my documents were really useful. No one knew me, the universities that I got my degrees from, and the companies that I had worked for. So what was the point of carrying all these documents? 

It was a heart-breaking moment. I moved to Canada in the hopes of being able to do what I was good at, could do well and was the dream of all my life, but Canada did not recognize my credentials. 

The surprising part of the story was that the government had assessed and accepted me based on these same documents. The university had accepted that I studied for at least 17 years – but still did not give me full credit for Master"s degree. The job market discounted my credentials even further.

The Canadian job market cared not about what I had done but what I was going to do in Canada. It seemed to me that Canada needed talented and hardworking people and granted them admission to Canada under different visa programs based on their achievements in their home country. But after moving in, Canada wanted to educate them based on the skills that were needed in the country, and making them ready for their own job market. 

Starting afresh

It was at this moment that I realized that all I had to bring to Canada was a prepared me: A person who knew what was waiting for her in this moving process, a person who was ready to embrace the new situation and ready to learn new things, a person who wished to start afresh as she contemplated that a brighter future would eventually come, and a person who did not become disappointed from the hardships along the way. 

After I moved to Canada and witnessed the reality, I decided not to rely too much on my achievements and experiences in Iran. I decided to be eager to learn new things and routines in the hope that hard work will eventually pay off.

I was ready to make a new beginning without my documents and titles, so I could write a new life story.

This piece is part of a mini-series within New Canadian Media’s Mentorship Program. The writer was mentored by Alireza Ahmadian.

Mona Mashhadi Rajabi holds a Master’s degree in economics. As a business journalist living in Tehran, she has written for publications such as Donyay-e-eghtesad, Tejarat-e-farda, Jahan-e-sanat and Ireconomy.

Published in Commentary

Commentary by: Mona Mashhadi Rajabi in Tehran, Iran

I am among the thousands of folks waiting in queue immigrate to Canada. This wish was triggered after my previous experience of having lived in Canada as an international student.

I moved to Canada in August 2015 with a student visa. I decided to pursue my PhD in economics as I was aware of the exceptional educational system in Canada. But it was not all. 

Good feeling about Canada 

Many people ask me why I am still considering immigrating to Canada, as my initial 5 month stay consisted of studying for one semester before withdrawing from the program and then returning to Iran. After all the disappointments that I felt and all the failures that I encountered, they wonder why I want to return to Canada, this time as a permanent resident. 

My answer to this question is simple. I feel good about Canada. I think this country can give me the opportunity to live and work in a more developed environment. Besides, I get the chance to meet people from different cultures which is very attractive for me. 

I also think my daughter can have a brighter and safer future in Canada because of the advanced educational system in the country. Canada offers more opportunities and better environment for children to grow and gain the skills that make them better prepared to lead a fruitful life. 

Big decision after a hard time in life 

My five months of stay in Canada as an international student was not easy. It was filled with many new experiences, the good and the bad ones, hopes and disappointments and failures and success. But all of them made me a more rational, responsible and powerful person because I had to stay in control of my circumstances and deal with various issues one at a time. Those experiences opened my eyes to a different world and showed me new realities. 

In that new world, I felt like a human who could fail or succeed. A human who lived, worked and struggled with different challenges and was still hopeful about the future. A human who thought better things were on the way and the only thing that helped her to defeat the challenges was her own hard work. A human that was independent, strong and was treated fairly. 

On the other hand, people in Canada were so open to new things, new people or even a new normal. People lived the way they were happy about and at the same time, accepted others the way they were. This was good because it helped me feel welcome in society and be able to participate in my community’s activities. 

In my experience, Canadians think about their society as their own family. In a family every member can live, grow, prosper and become a healthy individual. In this way, everyone feels safe, secure and protected by the family. This is the way Canada works. It allows people to immigrate to Canada, gives them opportunities, and gives them the chance to study and work based on their abilities. At the end, Canada accepts them in the society and protects them legally in this society. 

Exploring the world 

For me, immigration means a lifelong learning, starting fresh, spending time to get familiar with the new living and working environment, and networking with new people to get a good job. That is what I like about life. Immigration is like having the chance of living a new life in a new environment and that is so exciting. 

I always loved to live in Canada to get the chance of meeting new people with new cultures because I am an adventurous person. I was always curious about how the society in a multicultural country like Canada works and how it educates people to be respectful of others. 

Besides, exploring the world and experiencing new things is what I like the most. I think there is always more to see in the world, more to experience and more to have. There are also many risks, challenges, and setbacks. But at the end of the day, persistence pays off and smart hard work leads to success. 

In fact, the curiosity and adventurous characteristics that led me to the world of journalism, is now encouraging me to pursue my wish to immigrate to Canada and hopefully make the most out of my life. I plan to succeed.

This piece is the third part of a mini-series within New Canadian Media’s Mentorship Program. The writer was mentored by Alireza Ahmadian.

Mona Mashhadi Rajabi holds a Master’s degree in economics. As a business journalist living in Tehran, she has written for publications such as Donyay-e-eghtesad, Tejarat-e-farda, Jahan-e-sanat and Ireconomy.

Published in Commentary

by Tazeen Inam in Mississauga

The World University Service of Canada (WUSC) will double the number of refugee students it will sponsor in the coming academic year, which is good news for Syrian refugees seeking post-secondary education in Canada.

Michelle Manks, manager of the Student Refugee Program and Campus Engagement at WUSC says the number has been raised to accommodate students affected by the Syrian crisis.

“Each year, we usually sponsor about 80 students, but next year we are expecting over 160 students. Half of them will be coming from Middle East,” she says.

One of the challenges in bringing Syrian refugees into the Canadian school system is that their academic strengths and needs are not the same. A majority of refugees have been living in camps for decades or were born in camps, whereas most Syrian students have been displaced more recently and as such have often spent more years in school.    

Reem Alhaj, a WUSC sponsored student at York University in Toronto, feels fortunate that she was accepted into the program after escaping Syria six years ago, while her brother was trapped by the regime forces. 

“I wanted to get my education. I have all my documents with me and my English is good,” she says, commenting on why she was accepted to the program.

Universities’ collaboration with WUSC

WUSC is a non-profit agency with headquarters in Ottawa that partners with dozens of Canadian universities and colleges. It has sponsored over 1,500 refugee students since 1978 from refugee camps all over the world. 

Since 2010, it has worked with camps in Jordan and Lebanon, taking in students from Iraq, Palestine, Sudan and Somalia. It plans to target asylum-seekers in Malaysia and expand its services for Syrian students over the next few years.

“Syrian nationals are not from camps necessarily, because they are largely in urban contexts,” Manks clarifies.

In response to the Syrian displacement, York University has agreed to contribute its own resources to sponsor an additional five WUSC refugee students starting in September 2016.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]"Next year we are expecting over 160 students. Half of them will be coming from Middle East."[/quote]

“It is a significant increase and likely to match the historic commitment of [the] University of British Colombia,” says Don Dippo, faculty member and local adviser to the WUSC committee at York University.

At Ryerson University, these students are called “WUSC Scholars” says Abu Arif, coordinator for international student support at Ryerson University. 

“We do not lower our academic standard to accept the students because if we do that they won't be successful here,” says Arif.

Every year, Ryerson University absorbs one or two WUSC sponsored students. Next year it plans to accept more students from Syria. 

“It depends on how much levy we have in our funds. It has to make financial sense,” he adds.

Syrian students more prepared for higher education

After the finalization of applications, these students are invited to take a language test — either in English or French — and an interview to gauge their strengths.

“People studying in universities, for instance living in Damascus, are more prepared to begin studies here,” says Dippo.

In terms of language, it’s relatively tough for Syrian students who followed Arabic language curriculum to transition to school in Canada, but easier for students coming from camps that teach English or French. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“We do not lower our academic standard to accept the students."[/quote]

For Syrians coming from an urban background, the transition process for them is often less jarring since they likely have attended school more recently and might already have university experiences.

In addition to upholding tough academic standards, the program does not have much leniency when it comes to missing documentation such as transcripts.

“Unfortunately, we are not able to accept students who don’t have documents. It’s the requirement of institutions,” added Manks.

Support for students upon arrival

Universities and colleges have their own structures to provide academic support for arriving refugees. Faculty members and student committees often help them throughout their transition to Canada, meeting them at the airport and assisting them during their settlement period both on and off the campus.

“We also offer various programming and workshops for the students’ transition period,” says Arif.

This scholarship is unique in the sense that these students come in as permanent residents who are allowed to work in Canada or opt for student loans. This is important for those who hope to send money back to their families. Other international students require work visas to earn money in Canada and often return home after completing their studies.

While these refugee students do receive significant support, many still face challenges settling down at the institutions and in a new country.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]For Syrians coming from an urban background, the transition process for them is often less jarring.[/quote]

After arriving in Canada in August 2014, Alhaj appreciated the WUSC team and says that they made her feel accepted; however, her fellow students struggled to understand her experiences. 

“They have over-generalized the diverse crisis of Syria,” she says.

“I had to face classification. I had lots of sympathetic responses, which are sometimes humiliating and lack empathy,” Alhaj says.

Now in Canada without her family, Alhaj is working towards self-healing and is motivated to become involved in international affairs. Her dream is to become a member of a decision making body that can help her people back in Syria.

"I will try to do something about it. Syrians have suffered and fought too much for democracy,” she concludes. 

{module NCM Blurb}

Published in Education
Wednesday, 03 February 2016 04:41

Students Lead Initiatives to Help Syrians

by Florence Hwang in Regina

When the pledge was announced to accept 25,000 Syrian refugees, many Canadians wanted to help — university students being no exception.

Using their resourcefulness and skills, students across the country have come up with tangible ways to help the new immigrants settle into their lives.

This ranges from handling legal paperwork, to collecting cutlery sets, to simply befriending incoming refugees.

More than just paperwork

In September, Rosa Stall, a third-year law student at Queen’s University, read an Ottawa Citizen article about how University of Ottawa law students started the Refugee Sponsorship Support Program. In this program, they worked with local lawyers to help people who were interested in helping out privately sponsored refugees.

In less than a month, that program attracted 140 volunteer lawyers, reported the Citizen.

Inspired by this initiative, Stall reached out to her classmates Jess Spindler, Kaisha Thompson and Lauren Wilson to set up something similar in Kingston.

So far, the Queen’s Law Refugee Support Program has met with local lawyers and helped different community groups resettle the refugees in Canada. This program provides training to lawyers and students regarding immigration law to help with the refugees’ paperwork.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]In less than a month, that program attracted 140 volunteer lawyers.[/quote]

The program has now grown to connect other Syrian refugee-related efforts through a portal hosted on their website.

Through their online fundraising campaign, the group has raised $1,896 to help Queen’s University professors sponsor a refugee themselves. They have also raised $550 offline and hosted a cutlery campaign where people had to collect stickers to redeem cutlery sets that would be donated to immigrants.

“Every single little bit helps, whether it’s taking somebody to the library or giving them cutlery or donating a lamp or something,” says Wilson.

Discovering similarities with newcomers

Thompson says this experience has been very eye-opening for her. She remarked that the refugee the professors sponsored was non-religious and spoke English, which surprised her as many may think Syrian refugees are Muslim and only speak Arabic.

“I think that the conception that we have of Syrian refugees of them being different than us is actually a false construction,” she says.

Thompson adds, “We’ve been learning a lot about the struggles that he [the sponsored refugee] faces, the political challenges that Syria is enduring currently. We are working towards creating a positive welcoming space for them in Canada and being an example to others who I think feel confused based on some of the media articles and the way that their issues are being portrayed.”

Efforts at other universities around Canada

One of the volunteer students with the Ryerson University Lifeline Syrian Challenge is Radwan Al-Nachawati, who speaks Arabic. This third-year marketing student, who is a Muslim of Syrian descent, is an Arabic interpreter for one of the newly arrived families.

When he found out about the Syrian crisis, he felt helpless, so he was glad to hear he had an opportunity to help through his school.

“It was definitely an uplifting feeling because it gave me a chance to help,” says Al-Nachawati, who is also the President of the Ryerson Muslims Association. 

Other students used their skills and training to help the Syrian refugees; for example. finance majors helped immigrants open a bank account and nursing students helped them set up their health cards.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]He was glad to hear he had an opportunity to help through his school.[/quote]

Another Ryerson student who felt moved to help out is Jaimie Dufresne. Dufresne is part of a sponsorship team that’s helping one family settle in Toronto. She remembers how emotional one of the three sons, who had arrived earlier in Canada, was when he was reunited with his family.

“I’m sure it must have been traumatic because they really trying to stay together. It was hard for them to be apart from him for so long,” says Dufresne, who is a PhD student in molecular science. 

Although Dufrese didn’t have much in the way of monetary funds to donate to incoming refugees, she noted she had time and skills to offer.

“It made me less hopeless about it. It made feel really good to be able to do something about it,” Dufresne says.

For the students, by the students

Concordia University’s Syrian Student Association initially helped raise funds for basic needs like clothing, food, housing, tutoring language and paperwork.

But they wanted to do more. That’s why Kinan Swaid, president of the Association, wants to build a resource centre dedicated to help all refugees that’s a stand-alone organization that is affiliated with the university.

The third-year mechanical engineering student notes that the only way for the centre to continue on is for it to start getting funding from the students, saying that it’s a service for and by the students.

Swaid, who is Syrian, says this refugee centre would ideally offer assistance to address psychological, medical, housing, education, career and financial needs immigrants may need.

The students will be able to vote at a referendum on whether they want to support this resource centre in the upcoming student by-election in March. The centre, if it goes through, will be funded by students based on their course load credits. 

 If the centre gets the green lights from the students, Swaid thinks the centre could be built by next September. 

{module NCM Blurb}

Published in Education
Wednesday, 29 January 2014 21:15

It’s not about sex — it’s about the law

by Albertos Polizogopoulos

There has been much talk about York University’s decision to accommodate the religion-based request of a male online student to not engage in group meeting work with female students. Most of the “news” pieces I’ve seen call the decision, and the student who made the request, sexist, misogynistic, and archaic. To accommodate this student, we’re told, would be a violation of women’s rights. Even Canada’s Minister of Justice spoke out against the decision, saying that Canada did not send troops to Afghanistan to fight for women’s rights only to have them degraded here.

All of these characterizations are, in my opinion, wrong. Here’s why. There is no question of, nor threat to women’s equality rights in the accommodation request of an online university student.

This story is being driven by a thorough misunderstanding of Canadian law and human rights.

There are no competing rights to be balanced in a case where granting one student’s request does not infringe on the rights of others. In Ontario, every person has the right not to be discriminated against, and to seek accommodation, on the basis of their religious beliefs. Because this is the law, York University is required to accommodate, to the point of undue hardship, the religious beliefs and practices of their employees and students. “Undue hardship” is a legal term which is fluid and case-specific, but in the simplest of terms, it means “undue burden”. Among other factors, an undue burden can be determined by the cost and/or labour required to provide the requested accommodation and the impact of providing the accommodation on the human rights of others.

Default option

As an employer I am required by law to accommodate the religious beliefs and practices of my staff. That being the case, if an employee requests the day off to observe a religious holiday, I would likely have to accommodate the request. If, however, that employee requested that I close the office and give everyone the day off on that religious holiday, I could successfully argue that it would be unworkable for me to provide the accommodation without undue burden. But the default in these kinds of requests is to provide the accommodation.

The York student’s request was a private one. If the professor had kept the request private, as would be expected, there would be no uproar. The student did not ask for female students to be treated differently, prohibited from participating in the online class or prohibited from participating in the group work. He asked that he be grouped with male students for assignments or that he be exempted from having to complete the work in a group. How would granting his request by having him complete the work on his own or placing him in a group with other male students, violate women’s equality rights? It wouldn’t.

We may not agree with the beliefs that underlie this student’s request, but his requested means of accommodation does not violate anyone else’s rights. Or provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Or sections of Ontario’s Human Rights Code.

No balancing of rights

Men and women have the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of their sex, but there’s no right for men or women to be in a study group with students who may not want to be in a group with people of the opposite sex. There is no legal balancing of rights necessary in this case because there are no competing rights in this case. If the student had asked for female students to be excluded from the classes he participated in, that would be a case of competing rights. In the balancing of rights in that scenario, request denied!

What matters here is context. Neither the student’s religion nor the basis of the religious belief preventing him from being in a study group with female students was divulged. Should it matter whether he is Muslim, Jewish, Christian or something else? In law, it doesn’t. In law, so long as the religious belief is sincere, it doesn’t matter whether it’s shared by all or most other people subscribing to a specific faith system. At least that is the opinion the Supreme Court of Canada has expressed on several occasions.

If this student truly believes that, for religious reasons, he ought not to be engaged in group work with female students, he should, at law, have his religious beliefs accommodated to the point of undue hardship.

Imagine, for a moment, his request was not a religious one. Imagine the student requesting the accommodation was Raj Koothrappali, the fictional character from the television show The Big Bang Theory. Until recently, the plotline had Raj unable, from fear, to speak in the presence of women (other than his mother) unless he had imbibed alcohol. In such a scenario, the accommodation request would be based on disability, not religion. Would that be sexist, misogynistic and a violation of women’s rights?

No one-size-fits-all

What if a female student who had been the victim of domestic abuse asked not to be placed in a group with male students? Would there be such an uproar? Would the professor have denied the request? Would the professor have discussed the request with his students? The media?

If someone would grant these latter two requests but not the one on religious grounds, perhaps their objections are rooted in their view of religion, not this specific case.

There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to human rights. Factual context and a proper appreciation of the law is necessary. At present, we label ourselves — constitutionally and in our laws — as a society that respects and affirms religious freedom. Until and unless we change our position as a society to one that only respects, affirms, and tolerates religious freedom for religious beliefs and actions we agree with, there is no legal basis upon which this student should not have received the accommodation he requested.

Albertos Polizogopoulos is a Partner with the firm Vincent Dagenais Gibson LLP/s.r.l. in Ottawa, Ontario. He regularly appears before courts and appellate courts including the Supreme Court of Canada to advocate for his clients’ rights to freedom of religion, freedom of expression and parental authority. He also frequently appears in media interviews and on panels to discuss constitutional law. This opinion was originally published by Cardus. Reprinted by permission of Cardus and the author.

Published in Commentary

New Canadian Media provides nonpartisan news and views representing all Canadian immigrant communities. As part of this endeavour, we re-publish aggregated content from various ethnic media publishers in Canada in an effort to raise the profile of news and commentary from an immigrant perspective. New Canadian Media, however, does not guarantee the accuracy of or endorse the views and opinions contained in content from such other sites. The views expressed on this site are those of the individual writers and commentators, and not necessarily those of New Canadian Media. Copyright © 2019 All rights reserved