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…

Succeeding in the Moment

In only five years since moving to Toronto from Lahore, Pakistan, Momin has accomplished what many international students strive to achieve.

Why did you come to Canada? And why Toronto specifically?

I moved to Toronto for university. I chose U of T because of the variety of disciplines that i could study and because it represented an opportunity to be immersed in a truly global environment.

What do you do now?

I’m currently head of community and social media at UrbanToronto, which a news website focusing on real estate development, urban politics and city-focused news. My undergraduate degree is in Urban Studies and Economic Geography, and I have work experience in both the digital media and non-profit environs so the position was a great fit for me. It allows me to use my city-building background and digital media interests at the same time.

Biggest struggle you faced when you first came to Toronto?

My biggest struggle was adjusting to the differences between Canadian and American culture. Having grown up on american pop culture and having also lived there as a toddler, I didn’t know how different Canadian culture to be. I was wonderfully surprised to find that Canadian culture is warmer, more welcoming and has a commitment to inclusivity and diversity unparalleled amongst major developed nations.

a happy momin
Momin graduated from the University of Toronto in 2015.

What shocked you the most when you came here?

What shocked me most about Canada was the high amounts of visibility that minorities have in society here. The immersion process and how it can work successfully was a pleasant surprise.

What do you like most about Toronto?

The pace. It’s both fast and slow at the same time, which is rare for a city as booming as it is.

Any tips for newcomers or refugees coming to Toronto?

Have an open mind – without it you may cut yourself off from what makes life here so attractive.