Seeking Refuge in the Future

While thousands of refugees have already arrived in Toronto, many more are expected to follow. I spoke with my friend Hinna Hatif, who was a refugee before moving to Canada 14 years ago, to get an idea of how her situation, attitude, and perspective differs from that of other immigrants.

Where did you emigrate from?

My family and I moved to Canada from India but I am originally from Afghanistan. We took refuge in India after the civil war started in Afghanistan and survival became difficult. The life threatening circumstances drove us out of our country, which my family never intended to leave.

Why did you come to Canada?

Most of my family migrated to Europe, which is where we were also headed but they advised us to move to Canada because it would be easier for us to advance here since we all knew english. Members of my family also lived in Toronto and were very happy here, which made the decision much easier for us.

How were the first ten years like for you and your family?

The first ten years were great and so were the last four years. Every moment spent in Canada is a moment to be thankful for. Our lives in India were very different. We were living comfortably however we were very distant from all our relatives. We were not able to travel with our Afghan passports because a lot of countries do not issue visas on Afghan passports and so we were not able to see our families unless they visited us.

My mom was only able to see her family after we received our Canadian passports. I will never forget the day I met some of my family for the first time in Europe after 16 years of being separated from them.

What are you up to now?

I work as the Administrative Support to the Marketing and Communications team at OntarioMD, which is a non-for-profit organization that certifies companies who provide physicians and clinics with Electronic Medical Records (EMRs). They also work on new initiatives to improve Ontario’s health care.

Over the years I have been very involved in the community especially the Afghan community in terms of running to become the president of the Afghan Student’s Association at York University. I have always enjoyed organizing events and getting the community together and involved.

Hinna celebrating her birthday with her grandparents in Afghanistan.
A young Hinna celebrating her birthday with her grandparents in India.

How have other members of your family adjusted?

My dad work as a mechanic with his brother. They have a garage and a dealership in Toronto and love what they do. My mom works at a daycare right by our house, and since she loves children, she naturally enjoys her job as well.

My sister wants to become a police officer and serve the city that gave her a new life. She is in her final years of completing Seneca College’s Social Work program. My little brother is 12 but he has a lot of aspirations. He wants to become a professional soccer player when he grows up.

Biggest struggle you faced when you first came to Toronto?

The cold…definitely the cold. We landed in Canada on a cold winter day in February, which is one of the coldest months of the winter. Having lived in a hot country for many years, it was hard for me to even adjust my breathing in such cold temperatures but I learned.

What shocked you the most when you came here?

A lot of things! I remember the first thing I smelled as we left customs was the smell of coffee. It was very alien to me and until today the smell of Tim Hortons coffee reminds me of my first day in Canada. I also remember looking out the window of our room in COSTI Immigrant Services, which is where we stayed for two days before moving into my uncle’s house, and seeing snow for the first time. It was always a dream of mine to see real snowflakes and I couldn’t wait to go outside and play in the snow.

I was also amazed at the fact that you could drink water straight from the tap because tap water was clean. In India we had to boil our water in order to drink it since it wasn’t safe. Our electricity would also often go out and it was always the worst during the hot summer days. I remember being amazed that electricity was always on in Canada. I will never forget the nights my family and I spent staying up all night because it was too hot to sleep and there was no electricity so we had to go to the roof of our house and sleep on cots in order to get some fresh air, but the air was never fresh, just recycled, polluted air and lots of mosquitos.

Any tips for other refugees coming to Toronto?

Please take advantage of the education system in Toronto and in Canada. Educate yourself to your fullest capacity. I don’t know where or what I would be doing if I was still in Afghanistan or in India and sometimes even thinking about it scares me. Our parents make a very hard journey that we as their children take for granted. It’s not easy to leave everything and everyone you know behind but they do it for us so my advice to newcomers is to make your parents proud and make something out of yourselves so that you can help support them the way that they helped support you.

If you’d like to learn more about Hinna and her news broadcasting work with Vibe FM, you can check out her page here.

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Why Everybody Loves the TORONTO Sign

Since its instalment in July 2015, the 3D TORONTO sign has become one of the hottest tourist attractions in downtown Toronto. Initially created for only the 2015 Pan Am Games, the $90,000 sign has remained a firm fixture of Nathan Phillips Square following popular demand.

In fact, it was so popular after it came out, that City Councillor Norm Kelly even suggested that different variations of the sign such as “The 6” and “T. Dot” be made and placed in other parts of the city to reinforce the “cool” Toronto brand. This was eventually deemed unsuitable, given that it would take away the special-ness of the original sign.

But despite its popularity, the TORONTO sign is not unique in its design. Other cities such as Lyon, Budapest, and Amsterdam have been spotted with their own downtown 3D signs. As an international city ready to prove its place on the world stage, it was only a matter of time before Toronto became part of this global trend. I mean, wasn’t that why we signed up for the Pan Am Games in the first place?

The "I amsterdam" sign in the Netherlands.
The “I amsterdam” sign in the Netherlands. Look familiar?
Another 3D sign in Lyon, France.
Another 3D sign in Lyon, France.

What does make it unique, however, is the fact that it is able to change colour and design. As a result, this sign is more than just a tourist attraction, it has also served as an art medium (Nuit Blanche), and as a way to show solidarity with Torontonians and our friends all over the world.  Just a few days ago, the sign was lit blue and yellow for the Canadian Cancer Society’s Daffodil Month, and before that green and white to remember the victims of the bombings in Lahore, Pakistan.

And while we have seen this display of support and empathy with more historic monuments around the globe, there is something more personal about the TORONTO sign that I can’t seem to explain. Perhaps it’s because of its location in front of city hall, it’s accessibility to everyone free of charge (I’m looking at you CN Tower), or the fact that I see it more frequently and have actually touched it?

Who knows, maybe it just looks great on Instagram.

Either way, it certainly has become a defining landmark of Toronto, and for the first time, I’m looking forward to sending some postcards with city hall in the background.
Fireworks at Nathan Phillips Square

So keep up the good work TORONTO sign! And don’t let any snarky lawsuits get in your way either…

So You Want To Be Canadian, Eh?

Becoming a citizen is the next step for many immigrants who have decided to call Canada their home. Of course, most of the information you need to apply for citizenship can be found online, so there’s really no need to repeat that information here (the process is long and involves substantial paperwork).

That being said, having become a citizen in August 2014, I would like to share with you three fond memories from my citizenship journey.

1. The Citizenship Test

Do you know how many electoral districts there are in Canada? The answer is 308.

Don’t feel bad if you didn’t know that, the only reason I do is because it was an actual question on my citizenship test (along with questions of who founded hockey, and the history of the Peace Tower).

If you’ve successfully applied to be a citizen, the next thing you will receive is a notification that you’ve been summoned for a citizenship test, along with a study guide.

Study guid citizen
The citizenship study guide.

Preparing for this test was one the most exciting parts of the entire process, simply because you learn so much about Canada and get to show off your knowledge.

There are different ways to study for this test. If you’re super studious like my Mom was, you can spend weeks reading this booklet, highlighting and making little notes in it. If, on the other hand, you’re pretty confident (read: lazy) and know the basics of Canadian politics and history, you can probably just read the book once and google “citizenship Canada practice tests.” I mean, we both got 10/10 in the end, so it’s really up to you.

Word of advice though, don’t even try to cheat from your family members taking the test alongside you. Not only will it lead to dire consequences, everyone is given a different test anyways, so your answers will all be wrong.

2. The Citizenship Ceremony

This is it. The big day.

The crown jewel of the citizenship process is without a doubt the swearing in ceremony. On this day you will see soon-to-be Canadians of all ethnic backgrounds gathering to take a pledge that will change their family history. There isn’t really a formal dress code, but most people tend to dress up for the occasion, some more than others. For instance, I saw one family dressed in full-on suits, including the baby, and another woman wearing the most beautiful sari I had ever seen.

The actual ceremony itself is pretty quick. After swearing the oath and singing the national anthem, everybody gets called up one by one to receive their citizenship certificate, shake the judge’s hand, and then sign some documents. After that, the judge will give a moving speech about being Canadian, and then everyone lines up to to take a tonne of photos with her and the Canadian flag (like tourists, ironically).

Canadian starter kit
The Canadian starter kit.

Since Canadians are so generous, you’ll also walk away with a swag bag full of goodies – a starter pack to becoming Canadian if you will. These include a mini Canadian flag, a book and poster of Canadian symbols, a 50% off VIA Rail discount coupon, and a Cultural Access Pass that gains you free entry into any Canadian museum and park for a year. The pass was particularly useful and I miss having that most of all.

3. The Aftermath

I remember my friend, who had been a PR (permanent resident) in Canada for many years, telling me about why she never applied to be citizen:

“You get everything Canadians get as a PR, except you can’t vote, so there’s really no need to become a citizen. Why bother?” she told me.

When I heard that, I did wonder if I was just wasting my time – I mean you still get free healthcare and OSAP no matter what, right?

But I’m happy to say that she was wrong. It’s been almost two years since I became a citizen now, and it’s interesting to see how how my life has changed since then. I’ve voted in two elections, become more politically aware, and am eligible for scholarships, grants, and government jobs that I wasn’t before.

I’m also treated differently when I travel. Not only can I go to most countries safely without a visa, I notice that people are kinder when they see my Canadian passport, versus when I had my Indonesian one before. I guess Canadians are loved the world over.

Even when Canadians are mean, they're polite

Aside from the obvious perks, it’s also great to be fully invested in this nation’s future. After struggling to get here and living here for so many years, it’s a wonderful feeling to know that you are now a citizen and belong to this country’s unique mosaic.

So now that you know my citizenship story, what was yours like? For those of you born Canadian, what has your experience been?

 

 

Let’s Talk Politics

If you were anything like me, it’ll take a while before you get around to figuring out Canada’s political system. So how does politics work here? Let’s start from the top shall we…

Federal Government

Justin Trudeau
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

The federal government is the highest level of government in Canada. This means that decisions made at this level will impact Canadians all over the country.

Most of you are probably aware of our head of government, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Although he’s only been in office for less than six months, he’s already pretty popular outside of Canada (“pretty” being the key word here).

That being said, Canada’s official head of state is still the Queen of England. This is because Canada remains part of the Commonwealth (territories previously part of the British empire). And while it explains why her image graces Canadian currency, the Queen also does some other things that benefit our country.

The federal government also consists of the House of Commons, with elected representatives known as Members of Parliament (MPs). Basically, the House of Commons makes Canada’s laws, which are then reviewed by the Senate (who are selected by the Prime Minister). You can find your MP and read more about parliament’s shenanigans here.

Provincial Government

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne

The next level of government makes decisions that affect our province, which in this case is Ontario.

In a nutshell: instead of a Prime Minister, there’s a Premier who is the head of government in Ontario. And instead of MPs, there are Members of Provincial Parliament (MPPs).

The provincial government is important because it has exclusive jurisdiction over public life that the federal government cannot interfere with (important information if you ever want to differentiate between your MP and MPP).

This also means that education, hospitals, welfare, and other policies can differ between provinces. A good example of this is the different ways alcohol is sold across the provinces. Ontario just approved the sale of beer in grocery stores last year, so that’s good news for us.

Municipal Government

Mayor John Tory
Toronto Mayor John Tory

The final level of government is the municipal government, which deals with everything Toronto related. Residents of the city of Toronto elect a mayor and council members who lead local government and make decisions about transit, infrastructure, libraries, parks, and garbage disposal (to name a few).

The municipal government is perhaps the most accessible level of government for residents, since members of the public can readily present their concerns to councillors at committee meetings.

Our current mayor is pictured on the left, but you’ve probably read in the news recently about the death of our previous mayor, Rob Ford. Love him or hate him, there’s no denying he was an interesting character who generated quite a bit of scandal in his heyday.

So there you have it. What are your thoughts on Canada’s political system? How does it differ from your own country? Do you think Justin Trudeau uses a liberal amount of shampoo (ha-ha)?

Side note: Political parties are another thing to be aware of, but I won’t touch on them here. It’s enough to know for now that Trudeau and Wynne are Liberal, and Tory is Progressive Conservative.

How Well Do You Know Toronto?

Last week, my friends and I quizzed each other on some crazy Toronto trivia. Below is the filmed footage for your viewing pleasure (I’m the first one to appear on the left).

Play along and let me know how many you got right!

Full disclosure: This video was created for our Digital Communications and Social Media Strategy class at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies. It was filmed and produced within two hours, and was required to be approximately two minutes in length.

A Newcomer’s Guide to the TTC

If you’ve recently arrived in Toronto, chances are you’ve already come across our beloved transit system, the TTC. But before you embark on exploratory adventures around our great city, it might be worth your while to learn more about the “red and white menace” that is the Toronto Transit Commission:

Simple and Sweet?

One of the first things you’ll notice when you start using the TTC subway, is the relative simplicity and ease needed to navigate its route compared to other transit systems in large metropolitans (just take a look at London’s compared to ours).

This is both a blessing and a curse. While the simplicity makes it quite easy to navigate the subway line and it’s major connecting stations, it also means that access to certain areas is somewhat restricted. Anything beyond the subway line will require taking another vehicle, and not all subway stations offer accessibility services (this is what the TTC looks like if you’re in a wheelchair). Few connecting stations and no relief line also makes for a VERY crowded commute during rush hour, so it’s always best to avoid the TTC during those peak hours when possible.

Paying for Your Ride

TTC Streetcar

Currently, there are three main ways to pay for the TTC. You can pay per ride using cash, buy a set of tokens for a slightly lower fare, or buy a weekly/monthly metropass that will give you unlimited access for that time. Yes, the fares are high, so choosing which type really depends on your needs.

One thing to keep in mind: if you plan on taking a connecting vehicle (e.g. train to bus), don’t forget to take a transfer when you pay your fare! TTC staff are not lenient on this matter, and I’ve wasted many a token by simply forgetting to ask for a transfer when I got on the bus. Be sure to take a look at this simplified explanation on how to use transfers.

You’ll also see green Presto machines in front of the turnstiles at some subways stations and in the new streetcars. Don’t worry too much about these unless you plan on using the GO Transit to travel to other areas in the GTA. The city plans to phase out tokens in favour of Presto cards by the end of 2016, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Subway Etiquette

When I first started using the TTC, I was unaware of the unspoken “rules” that govern commuters—especially during rush hour periods when trains and buses are packed. It’s natural to not be instinctively aware of these rules, especially if you come from a country with a horrid transit system like mine.

Crowded train in Jakarta, Indonesia
“Train surfing” in Jakarta, Indonesia. One obvious difference between my hometown transit system and the TTC.

But don’t worry, you’ll figure it out soon enough. Some of the rules are obvious, like offering your seat to a pregnant woman or a senior, and some of them aren’t as clear cut, like not standing in front of the door when there is room elsewhere.

To help clear things up, here’s a comprehensive list of things you should avoid doing on the TTC.

Delays Are the Norm, Not the Exception

Another thing to keep in mind is that delays are part and parcel of the TTC experience. Sometimes your subway commute will be riddled with delays along the way. Sometimes you’ll be told to exit the train at a station and wait for another one. And sometimes you’ll wait an hour for a bus, only to have three arrive at the same time.

I can only say that time heals all wounds. These delays do get aggravating at first, especially when they close down the subway lines for repairs, but don’t take it to heart. Whether it’s because of a signal delay or because someone pulled the emergency assistance alarm, everybody goes through it, and over time you’ll get used to this TTC quirk.

Strange Things Happen in Those Tunnels…

Many strange (and sometimes dangerous things) have happened in the TTC since I started using it six years ago.

To name a few: raccoons have taken subway rides, Union station was closed due to flooding, a child fell through the subway gap, and a woman was dragged across the platform while trying to save her purse that was caught between the train doors.

So while it’s a great time to be travelling on the TTC, always be aware of your surroundings! You never know what you’ll come across if you’re not paying attention…

*This post is dedicated to the voice of the TTC, Danny Nicholson. Nicholson retired today after warning riders to be safe and courteous over the public address system for over 16 years. Read his story here.

Welcome to Toronto!

When I first came to Toronto six years ago, I faced challenges that most new immigrants faced. Trying to find a place to live, figuring out how to get around, what winter wear to buy, how to fit in–you get the picture.

With that in mind, I started this blog as a way to help the expected rush of immigrants coming to Toronto adjust to their new, and often unexpected, lives.

Canadians welcoming the first Syrian refugee family at Pearson Airport, Toronto. Photo credit: Domnic Santiago
Canadians welcoming the first Syrian refugee family at Pearson Airport, Toronto. Photo credit: Domnic Santiago

Every week I will be posting about an issue or topic that will help people become acquainted with Toronto, as well as sharing my own experiences on how to get by.

I will also be posting a profile of a recent immigrant (approximately ten years or less) and their accomplishments every two weeks or so. While this does provide insight into the struggles faced by newcomers in Toronto, it also serves as an advice forum- sharing stories from one immigrant to another, so to speak.

Above all else, the purpose of this blog is to encourage those who have come here to strive for greatness, and to remain positive of what the future holds for them and their families (regardless of what life throws at them).

I mean, this is Toronto after all, where anything is possible.