by Shenaz Kermalli in Toronto 

Hossein is a 10-year-old Iraqi orphan with long hair, big olive-coloured eyes and a shy smile. He loves going to school and playing soccer. He also loves visiting his Canadian dentist for annual check-ups. 

Hossein’s dentist is one of 51 volunteers who fly into Iraq every spring to provide free dental care. 

Armed with colouring books, games and iPads – to entertain the children while they wait for their turn – the dentists come fully equipped to carry out everything from oral health instruction to preventative care, including fissure sealants, extractions and stainless steel crowns. 

Toronto dentist Jaffer Kermalli* has been treating Hossein for several years. “His long hair hides scars from a bomb blast he was in,” Kermalli shares. “He came back to us [this year] and specifically wanted us to fix a broken front tooth and take away the pain from another tooth in his mouth.”

Kermalli recently went on his fifth trip to Iraq with Global Kindness Foundation (GKF), a Vancouver-based charitable organization that takes two trips every year to provide medical, dental and optical services to countries in need due to war and poverty. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“To see the state of these children and how much they struggle; it puts all my first-world problems into perspective.”[/quote]

A passion project 

In 2015, GKF took its dental mission to Iraq and Kenya. In the past, the organization (members pictured) also travelled to Peru, India and Tanzania. 

The 33-year-old dentist calls it his “passion project.” 

“I plan my year around the GKF trips, and over the years have become more active in helping organize supplies and train volunteers. It gives me focus throughout the year, and is my ‘reset,’” he says. “To see the state of these children and how much they struggle; it puts all my first-world problems into perspective.” 

The children they treat are generally thrilled to see them – notwithstanding the usual anxiety that comes with dental visits. 

For many, it means the first time ever sitting in a dentist’s chair, or holding a toothbrush. The lack of basic awareness is a direct outcome of living in both a war-torn country and refugee camps, where dental care is scarce or not available at all. 

Many non-dental volunteers have also joined the group, along with several opticians and physicians. The non-medical volunteers are assigned roles like screening the children in the waiting areas, occupying the children while they wait for their appointment and assisting the dentists. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]For many, it means the first time ever sitting in a dentist’s chair, or holding a toothbrush.[/quote]

Shahina Rahim, an IT executive at the Royal Bank of Canada in Toronto, joined GKF for a second time this year. 

“I wanted to make a small difference to the lives of the children,” she says. “I couldn’t stop thinking about them and wanted to come back and help.” 

This time, though, she took a few Arabic classes in Toronto before leaving in order to help overcome the language barrier. 

Meeting many needs 

Additional medical and optical camps were also set up, seeing more than 1,000 children over two weeks. Many were referred to specialists. 

“One child had a case of congenital heart defect which had gone untreated and required surgery,” recalls Vancouver dentist and GKF founder, Dr. Hasnain Dewji (pictured).  

“There were also some cases of severe psychiatric conditions, so a referral to a local psychiatrist was arranged. Two other boys needed growth-hormone therapy. We are trying to determine the cost of therapy and see if we can raise the funds needed.” 

The two opticians in the group also flew in from Vancouver, and determined that at least 60 of the children they saw required corrective lenses. The charity arranged for the eyeglasses to be made in Tanzania and delivered for free to Iraq. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]"[The kids] have aspirations, optimism and hopes and dreams like all of us.”[/quote]

Kids are kids 

The dental mission to Iraq started on March 19 and ended April 1. GKF is already recruiting its next set of volunteers to travel to Bhavnagar, India, in December. 

For Rahim, the hardest part of her trip to Iraq was witnessing the social remnants of war – the beggars, the children in wheelchairs and the sheer poverty. 

“For many of the kids, you can see the poverty through hygiene, dirty or worn clothes, and shoes or sandals that don't fit them.”  

But none of that seemed to stop them from smiling, laughing and dreaming, she adds. 

“My encounter with the kids has been a wonderful one. They have aspirations, optimism and hopes and dreams like all of us,” she says. 

“Kids are kids after all, no matter what part of the world they live in.” 

*Source is not related to the author.


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Published in Health
Thursday, 22 October 2015 02:16

Volunteering Benefits Newcomers' Well-Being

by Maria Ikonen in Ottawa

Moving to a new country can be stressful. It means leaving familiar places, people and aspects of everyday life behind. Whether arriving in Canada with their family or alone, adjusting to a new and unfamiliar environment for many newcomers is difficult.

Volunteering and getting involved in social activities has helped many adapt, and had positive effects on their overall well-being.

Originally from Pakistan, Shahnaz Ali, 44, lived in Saudi Arabia and the U.S. before coming to Canada in 2002. Encouraged by the principal, Ali began volunteering at her daughter’s school, and then later with the YMCA and a Sunday school.

She remembers the value of volunteering during those early days in Canada.

“Newcomers can get the opportunity to socialize and meet new people and get a better understanding of Canadian culture,” says Ali, who now volunteers with The Ottawa Hospital.  

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“Simply put, it feels great to give back to others through volunteerism, plus there are opportunities to develop new skills.”[/quote]

Sherri Daly, manager of volunteer resources at The Ottawa Hospital, describes volunteering as an effective way to learn about social norms in Canada.

“It is vital to get out of your house when you are new to a community or job hunting. Having meaningful things to do can be a way to build self-esteem and connections,” says Daly.

Gaining valuable work experience

Having local work experience may be vital when looking for new employment. In such a situation volunteering can be beneficial, explains Annmarie Nicholson, director of volunteer services at The Royal, a mental-health research and care facility in Ottawa.

“Simply put, it feels great to give back to others through volunteerism, plus there are opportunities to develop new skills,” says Nicholson. “Work experience as well is a very practical benefit to volunteering, and having a local reference person when applying for jobs is a big benefit as well.”

Besides learning about Canadian culture and creating new resume material, being active is a chance to help others, adds Andrea Tatarski, coordinator in humane education at the Ottawa Humane Society.

“Volunteers have the opportunity to give back to the community by making positive differences for the animals in our care, as well as the people we serve through our various programs and services.”

Improving mental health

Sinthuja Krishnamoorthy works in the Newcomer Youth Program at East Metro Youth Services, an adolescent mental-health and addictions centre in Scarborough, Ontario.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Some newcomers may be interested in volunteering, but are unsure of where to start or are hesitant to get involved.[/quote]

The program is geared toward engaging young refugees and those who have permanent residency in Canada in social and volunteering activities.

“Becoming lonely in a new country and being away from family can cause anxiety,” says Krishnamoorthy. “We help these newcomers discuss their issues in a safe environment.”

The biggest challenge for youth is often feeling confident in their language skills, Krishnamoorthy explains.

“They might not learn English as a second language in their home countries, or aren’t comfortable using it. This is where our daily conversations and interactive activity component comes in handy.”

Once program participants feel more comfortable, Krishnamoorthy says they have an opportunity to volunteer.

Participants have made mattresses from used milk bags to send to developing countries, for example.

“We want to keep youth active and interested,” says Krishnamoorthy. “We ask the youth what they would like to achieve by being in the program.”

Krishnamoorthy also has success stories to share. “One youth was shy at the beginning, but now he is going into his second year of medical school. Another young man [shared] in a television interview his understanding of what mental health is. [He said] speaking of it and seeking help has greatly improved his relations with his family and helped to improve his own mental health.”

Taking the first step

Many things may prompt a person to decide to volunteer.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]I believe volunteering my time is the best way [to] appreciate all blessings in my life.”[/quote]

One reason might be positive encounters with a particular organization.

“I had a friend who had a very good experience with the nursing staff when her father stayed at [The Ottawa Hospital], and she committed to volunteer to give something back to the cause,” shares Ali.

For others, the decision to start volunteering may arise from a personal situation.

“I lost my hearing about six years ago, and as that happened, my employer refused to accommodate my disability,” says one volunteer from The Ottawa Hospital who wishes to remain anonymous. “Volunteering at the hospital allows me to gain experience so that in the future I can find an employer who will accommodate [me].” 

Some newcomers may be interested in volunteering, but are unsure of where to start or are hesitant to get involved.

Nicholson says that the best time to start is now.

“Facing all of the massive changes you have already faced through immigrating to our country has allowed you to build resiliency you may not recognize,” she says. “Share your concerns honestly with the agency you are considering volunteering with, and that agency will find ways to overcome the barriers that are contributing to your hesitancy.”

Says Ali: “I believe volunteering my time is the best way [to] appreciate all blessings in my life.”


Journalist Priya Ramanujam mentored the writer of this article, through the New Canadian Media mentorship program.

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Published in Health
Thursday, 17 September 2015 11:05

Youth Volunteers Support Chinatown Seniors

by Deanna Cheng in Vancouver

One outreach worker is creating a bilingual volunteer program because there's not enough support for Chinese seniors, especially those in Vancouver's Chinatown.

Chanel Ly, a 23-year-old outreach worker who is part of the Downtown Eastside SRO Collaborative, initiated the Youth for Chinese Seniors program because when she sees all these seniors – who are predominantly female – she thinks of her grandma. She cannot imagine not helping them out.

"I can't stand seeing seniors being neglected. It's disrespectful."

She points out that it's part of the Chinese cultural values to care for elders.

Ly will connect bilingual youth volunteers to seniors in the Strathcona area, the city's oldest neighbourhood.

Tasks for volunteers include translating legal documents, taking seniors to the doctor's office or the pharmacy, and informing seniors about their rights as tenants.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]The biggest problem for Strathcona seniors is affordable housing.[/quote]

One of the biggest challenges Ly faced while building this program from scratch was the amount of work required because there was no previous infrastructure, despite the demand for service that was culturally appropriate and in Chinese.

The program will run from this month to March next year, Ly says, because that's when grant funding ends.

"The goal is to improve the quality of life for Chinese seniors."

Addressing Chinese seniors’ challenges

The biggest problem for Strathcona seniors is affordable housing. With condo developments in the area, rents are going up and pushing out the original residents.

Vancouver activist Sid Chow Tan believes the Chinese benevolent and clan associations should contribute to Chinatown by providing their buildings and property for social housing. These associations, grouped either by provinces in China or last name "clans," were community centres.

Historically, most of the association buildings were community homes and bachelor suites for Chinese immigrants, a demographic regularly ignored by the government and institutions, Tan says. "It's sad to see space that used to house hundreds and hundreds of bachelors are now used for mahjong and ping-pong."

Another concern for seniors is health, says Ly. "Doctors are not always accessible. Drop-in clinics are not always available. Or opened only during certain hours."

Volunteers will help by accompanying seniors to the doctor's office and translate if needed.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]"We want to fill in the gaps between the generations." - Chanel Ly, Downtown Eastside SRO Collaborative[/quote]

Racism against Chinese seniors does happen at community centres, due to an unfounded belief that there's no such thing as poor Chinese people.

"There are poor Chinese," Tan said at a July event where bilingual volunteers and seniors met. "The Chinese poor doesn't want to be seen as poor. They just bear it."

Tan says they don't want to "lose face." In Chinese, the phrase means losing a combination of self-respect, honour and reputation.

Community survival

Despite the barriers they encounter, these seniors survive by banding together. "They're always self-sufficient and resourceful. They have their own networks," Ly says.

However, Mandarin-speaking seniors are even more marginalized, she says, because what little support there is, it's usually for Cantonese speakers.

Tan says the boomer generation couldn't leave Chinatown fast enough, but the "echo-boomers" came back. "They see something to save and protect. It's sacred ground to Chinese people.”

"It was where people organized to vote, worked to send money home," he says. "Now it's sullied by market forces, economic greed and political entitlement within the community."

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Three in five Canadians say their families are not in a good position, financially or otherwise, to care for older family members requiring long-term health care.[/quote]

Connecting generations

The program also promotes intergenerational interactions. Says Ly, "We want to fill in the gaps between the generations."

Ly started collecting volunteers before the summer and will have check-in meetings with youth once a month. At the moment, she has 15 dedicated volunteers lined up.

The online volunteer form is comprehensive, even asking for preferred pronouns. The program organizer says she wanted the volunteers to feel comfortable.

When asked if seniors – especially those with a traditional mindset – would be upset with transgender volunteers, Ly says the seniors might accept them.

She says they'll notice more that the volunteer is a young, Chinese-speaking person. They'll be grateful for the assistance, and would get to know them as human beings with good intentions.

Seniors’ health care: the numbers

A report titled "2015 National Report Card: Canadian Views on a National Seniors' Health Care Strategy" by Ipsos Reid Public Affairs for the Canadian Medical Association said seniors today represent 15 per cent of the population. In 1971, seniors only represented eight per cent of the population.

Three in five Canadians say their families are not in a good position, financially or otherwise, to care for older family members requiring long-term health care, the report said.

Respondents 55 years of age and older indicate they want more home care and community support to help seniors live at home longer as a key priority for the government.

Ninety per cent of Canadians surveyed believe we need a national strategy on seniors' health care that addresses the need for care provided at home and in hospitals, hospices and long-term care facilities, as well as end-of-life care.

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Published in Health

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