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…

Albanian Born, Canadian Raised

Marvin was born in Elbasan, Albania, and moved to Canada when he was only eight years old. Although I usually only post about people who have been in Toronto for ten years or less, today I thought I would take a different perspective and see what it’s like for people who grew up here in surroundings much different from their parents.

So first things first, why did you come to Canada? And why Toronto specifically?

We came to Canada because it offered better opportunities and education. There was nothing specific about Toronto aside from it just happened to be the place we came to.

How long have you been living in Toronto for?

About 16 years now.

What do you do now?

At the moment, I’m a masters student at Ryerson University studying biomathematics.

What were the early years like for you and your family?

The first few years were difficult, but as time progressed it became easier. When we first came here we stayed in a one bedroom apartment, and I remember sleeping on the sofa for a while. Luckily, my aunt moved here before us so it was a lot easier to get settled.

Biggest struggle you faced when you first came to Toronto?

Like most people, it was the language barrier. It was easier for me to learn because I was young, my parents had a harder time

It seems like family played a big role in your move here. Do you still have family in Albania?

Yes, my grandparents are still there along with some aunts and uncles. I’ve never been back, but they like to visit once in while. I’ve lived in the same neighbourhood since we came here, and while we do like to be near family it’s also because a lot of our family friends from Albania live here as well.

What was it like growing up here for you? Did you have any trouble adjusting to school?

No, not really. The school system here is very welcoming to newcomers, and my school offered ESL classes for new immigrants. There were a lot of Albanian kids at my school too, so we all pretty much grouped together naturally and became friends. We’re all still close friends and live in the same area – but of course, we have friends from all cultural backgrounds now.

I think the European culture has remained strong in our house because my parents did not grow up here, so as a result they were more lax in some areas, for instance letting me drink before I was 19, but were stricter in some other aspects. My younger brother, on the other hand, was born here and he gets everything!

 

 

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?

 

 

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.

Goodbye Bogota, Hello Toronto

Catalina moved to Toronto from her hometown of Bogota, Colombia seven years ago. Read her story, and find out where life in the 6ix has taken her since.

Why did you come to Toronto?

My step-dad had a job opportunity here through his brother. Also, my parents were aware that opportunities are very limited back in Colombia, and security was a huge concern for them. I also think we came here because Toronto is one of the largest cities in Canada, so there are more opportunities too.

What do you do now?

I’m currently finishing my undergrad in Architecture at Ryerson University. I will start looking for jobs in the near future. One of the problems is that there aren’t enough job offers right now, and competition is very high too.

What was the biggest struggle you faced when you first came here?

We were fortunate enough to not have any big issues. Perhaps a language and cultural barrier. However, I found that locals are very open and understanding.

Photo of Catalina (right) and her parents taken during their first year in Toronto.
Photo of Catalina (right) and her parents, taken shortly after their arrival in Toronto.

Have other members of your family faced difficulties moving here?

After we immigrated to Toronto, two of my uncles came here within the following two years. They have had more issues. One of them came with a student visa, but his process to become a Permanent Resident has been extremely long and unstable. The government changes its policies very often, making it harder to be up-to-date with the documents, time requisites, etc.

My aunt came here through the medicine plan, in which professionals with a medical background are more welcomed in Canada. However, she has been unable to practice medicine. She has presented exams in different parts of Ontario, and is still being denied.

What shocked you the most when you came here?

Something that still shocks me is the consumption and waste generation. Even though there is a lot of publicity about being green and recycling, people have very little environmental concern. Moreover, the consumption of goods…the consumerist culture here is just too much!

Do you ever go back to Colombia?

I’ve been to Colombia three times after I moved here. Everything feels different! The people, the social rules, the traffic, the lifestyle, security, everything. It feels like I’m not Colombian anymore. However, my family and I still have some of the Colombian traditions, with a mix of the Canadian culture. It’s like we don’t really have one specific culture defined anymore. After seven years, my family and I still feel like immigrants in Canada. But if we go back to Colombia, we would also feel like ones.

Any tips for newcomers coming to Toronto?

Just from family and friends’ experiences, the start might be rough, but people need to be open for new opportunities. The city is very expensive too, so bring a lot of savings!

The family today, enjoying some sightseeing in Huntsville, Ontario.
The family today, enjoying some sightseeing in Huntsville, Ontario.

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.