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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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.

Helena’s Story: From House to Hospital

Occasionally, I’ll post a profile of a recent immigrant to Toronto (ten years or less), along with stories of their struggles, successes, and advice to newcomers. Here is the first.

Name: Helena

Country of origin: Jakarta, Indonesia

Time in Toronto: Six years

Why did you choose to come to Canada, and Toronto specifically?

Because Canada has the same values that I believe in. Toronto is the money capital of Canada, and my thinking was it would provide more opportunities if we were to start from the ground up.

Biggest struggle you faced when you first came to Toronto?

Trying to break into the job market; I was totally clueless as to how to build a proper resume. I was a homemaker for 20 years before I came here, and was trying to start over with just a high school diploma!

What do you do now?

I am an administrative assistant in a hospital setting. It started out as volunteering as part of my internship for a diploma program I was doing at Herzing College. I stayed for seven months volunteering in various administrative offices when an opportunity broke open. It was a temporary seating for a secretary going on her honeymoon for 3 weeks. She was an assistant to a surgeon.

Office space

So how did you go from there to a full-time position?

I guess it matters a lot when you are not just doing your job because it is required of you, but also to show your dedication and intention to actually make improvements because you care. I gave my best, and the surgeon actually wanted me to stay in their department. Another opening happened to materialize, and I got the interview. It was a part time position, and I got a probationary month. I came in everyday, as in working full time, but was hired part time. I did it because I wanted to get the job done well. I guess the efforts and attitude showed, and by the third month I was offered a full-time permanent position.

From then on, it got busier, I learned more, and another responsibility, a challenging one was added, almost a year into the job. I was assigned to run a sub specialty clinic with 7 doctors in the team. I am into the fourth year now, and am still learning and developing new systems to match the speed at which the clinic is expanding.

How have other members of your family adjusted?

They have adjusted really nicely and quite effortlessly. My eldest is working as a clinic assistant in a community health centre while continuing her French, and her sister is pursuing her master’s degree.

What do you like most about Toronto?

It’s pace and busyness– The sense that working hard will bring results.

Any tips for newcomers coming to Toronto looking to find work?

If I look back now, it was not experience that put me where I am today. It was determination and strong conviction that I could be a great contribution, that I could make things better. The volunteering part is important because you get to know what is required for a job, and of course you have to like the nature of the job.

I guess the key is never to stay comfortable, the challenges you face can be the stepping stones to more success. You also have to be willing to learn and change. Every country has its own culture, so you have to be open to adjust with the existing standards in order to be accepted.