Reflections on “Living in Colour”: Have We Done Enough to Help Refugees Settle in Canada?

I think we have done a lot of great things to be proud of as Canadians. Take a look for example at the Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program — a one-of-a-kind refugee program that other countries should look at. But there are always ways to improve. Our response to the refugee crisis is a work in progress and just as we helped thousands of Syrian refugees find a safe home, we can definitely help other refugees find peace and safety in Canada.

But how can we look at the benefits from having such a great pathway to sponsor refugees through the private sponsorship program beyond just sponsoring refugees?
In other words: Canadians who sponsored refugees demonstrated courage and compassion, and in return many of them found connection and community in this new experience. Sponsorship programs allow Canadian citizens to be ambassadors for refugees.

During my time working with LifeLine Syria — a non-profit assisting sponsor groups to welcome and resettle Syrian refugees as permanent residents in the GTA, I have heard and seen many heartbreaking stories, of people desperate to leave war-torn Syria. Even when we were trying to help connect these refugees to private sponsors’ groups, in many cases, we lost connection with these refugees and we never knew what happened to them.  On the other hand, I have seen sponsors passion and commitment to help refugees resettle in their new home — Canada. An experience that is worth having. 

A journey full of Obstacles & Hope (Barriers to Integration).

Through my migration journey, I realized how truly daunting the migration and settlement experience can be especially for immigrants of colour. There are several systemic and structural barriers experienced by immigrants and refugees settling in Canada.These barriers can be summarized under three major headings:

1. Employment and education.

2. Culture and social barriers.

3. Access to significant services such as settlement support, healthcare, child care and transportation.

Social isolation and exclusion is one of the biggest obstacles that newcomers face when they arrive in Canada. Immigrants of colour in particular might also face discrimination, prejudice and racism. Social capital and social network is so crucial to immigrants and newcomers. As a mom, for example, the lack of affordable childcare was a big barrier for me that hindered my ability to work and delayed my career plans — and even volunteer work was not possible without daycare or  junior kindergarten. Back then, kindergarten was part time which is something that is not helpful for working moms. Now our provincial government is looking to bring back the JK and SK part time system and thousands of childcare spots are at risk now due to new provincial changes. These kind of policies and decisions will negatively impact thousands of families and moms out there particularly immigrant families who lack the financial and family network support and can’t afford childcare.  The list of barriers and challenges faced by immigrants does not end.

 This is just to name a few barriers. Like many newcomers to Canada, I faced many to employment-related issues including but not limited to credentials and Canadian experience. More importantly, immigrants of colour might face bias and discrimination when applying for jobs — statistically, women and immigrant women of colour are even at higher risk of facing employment challenges.

 For immigrant students in particular, which my area of work and advocacy is focused, they are faced with many barriers and this quote sums it very well: “The concerns of newly-arrived immigrant students include the need for English language acquisition, the lack of social support networks and of social acceptance, racial labeling and categorization, acquiring new learning styles, post-traumatic stress syndrome, different cultural scripts, and the typical development issues that all students face” (Williams & Butler, 2003, p.9).

I have paused when asked by Farah Nasser at “Living in Colour” if I think immigrants are treated differently based on where they come from, for example (Middle East versus Europe). Two main thoughts came to my mind.

 #1. The representation of immigrants of Colour and how these immigrants are portrayed in mainstream media. I grew up seeing all influential people in Hollywood movies, in business, in politics and different industries as white people. It was very rare to see a political leader who identifies as a person of colour. For example, I am someone who has political aspirations and I aspire to run for office one day but It is hard to visualize myself in that position when I don’t see immigrant women of colour in these positions. Representation really matters — genuine representation and not pulling the diversity card. This community should not be tokenized but rather recognized for their abilities, knowledge and experiences.

#2. This also goes hand-in-hand on how the mainstream media is portraying immigrants from certain backgrounds and identities such as Arab Immigrants, Muslim immigrants, Black and South Asian immigrants. Immigrants of Colour have been treated as outsiders and have been seen as “others.” Their race and identity have been linked to the criminal justice system and terrorism, these immigrants are treated differently based on their race, ethnicity, culture, background and where they come from. When I say media I not only mean newsrooms, but also movies, children’s cartoons, books, etc.

Many studies have shown the correlation and connection between media coverage and attitudes towards immigrants. It is time for our media to be on the right side of history and focus on the positive stories of migration. Media has the power to influence the discourse of migration and attitudes towards immigrants. The first step to change the negative image of immigrants in the media is to change the language being used in the media. Language has the power to transform our ways of thinking about this particular community. Language is used to frame, label and disadvantage a whole population. We should stop labeling immigrants as people that would drain the system, as unwanted invaders or even calling them “illegal aliens.”  We need a paradigm shift in the ways those immigrants are portrayed. We need to focus and shed light on the untold positive side/ stories of migration –these stories deserve to be documented and told.

After living six years in a country that prides itself with its diversity, multiculturalism and acceptance to people from different walks of life, I do believe that immigrants of colour are treated differently. I believe that we live in a society that has a very well established system that treats immigrants of colour as second class citizens. I’ll end up by asking how can we eliminate and remove the systemic and structural barriers to integration that prevent immigrants from fully participating in society and particularly immigrants of colour. How can we help them find their voice and place in the community and their sense of belonging?


Reflections on “Living in Colour: My Immigration Journey and the Helping Hands

I reflect daily on my immigration experience, but to prepare for the Living in Color interview I had to dig deeper. I needed to compare my story to others’. Since I founded the Newcomer Students’ Association of Ryerson four years ago, and through my capacity working in the settlement sector here in Toronto, I heard hundreds of these stories from fellow immigrant and refugee. I listened to accounts of struggle, fear, uncertainty, desperation, hope, sacrifice, courage, resilience and inspiration.

While this platform allowed me to connect with the community that I am part of — the immigrant community — it also showed me another side to life. A side that is full of fear and uncertainty, and how desperate people are to make fatal decisions to cross borders and rivers to seek refuge. A side that made me understand my position and privileges and question the human race/being. A side that made me wonder: If It was not for the people who gave me a helping hand when I first came to Canada, would I even be able to be where I am today?

Although our decision to move to Canada was influenced by the political situation back home, we still had a choice to make. Unlike many refugees who were forced to leave fleeing violence and persecution, we came here through the economic class as skilled immigrants. The Canadian immigration system is a point system that favours those who are privileged and have the resources and can afford to move and settle in Canada. We were the kind of immigrants Canada is looking to recruit. My husband and I were both highly educated, experienced, spoke the language and were young. We were privileged in the sense that we didn’t have to put our safety, or even our life, at risk coming here.

Is Migration Ever Going to End?

Migration, displacement and the refugee crises are not going to stop if we were not to identify and address root causes. We live in a world on the move where migration is influenced by circumstances and actions occurring around the world. Migration is shaped by politics, economy, demographics, human rights, climate change and much more. Climate change is and will continue to be one of the biggest drivers of migration. Natural disasters and the effect of climate change will continue to contribute to migration and displacement around the world.

Countries such as Canada will continue to have a growing number of people seeking asylum and protection. According to UNHCR’s annual Global Trends Report – released on June 2019 nearly 70.8 million people were displaced at the end of 2018. A number that is worth reflecting on. But how can Canada be a leading voice in migration? How can we do better in welcoming and accepting immigrants and refugees into our communities? 

—Sara Asalya

Reflections on “Living in Colour”: Embracing and Amplifying My Unique Voice

I was invited to speak at  Living in Colour show at Global TV with Farah Nasser. Farah and the producer of this show, Alley Wilson, are both women of colour. I am always thrilled to meet trailblazers women like Farah and Alley who utilize the media to tell the otherwise untold stories of everyday, lived experiences of people of colour. 

Storytelling can be a powerful tool to connect with people, their stories and relate to their experiences. I was struck by the incredible stories of people of colour in this show. Their courage, resilience and determination to not only share their own stories but also to continue to challenge the status quo. We need more platforms to feature POC and give them the space to share their own stories. Experiences with racism, microaggressions, experiences as visible minorities and how these people lead in everyday life while POC. How hard is it to lead while POC? How are our visible identities, race, colour of our skin socially constructed? How are we fighting for our  space in a predominantly white western society?

When I asked the host and producer of Living in Colour about the idea of the show and what is the message that they hoped the audience will get from this show, they wrote back:

“Although it has taken many years, I’ve learned to not apologize for who I am as a Woman of Colour but rather embrace my unique voice. My producer, Alley Wilson, started this series to talk about everyday subjects through the lens of people of colour and offer audiences different perspectives that they may not be exposed to regularly. Some of these conversations have been difficult, embarrassing and uncomfortable but all of them have been eye-opening.” – Farah Nasser, host of Living In Colour and Global News anchor

“As a woman of colour, I always found it hard to express what it was I was going through on a daily basis to people who were not from a racialized community. I came up with Living In Colour because I realized that I wasn’t alone in the way I felt. I wanted a safe space for people of colour (POCs) to have in-depth discussions, which are sometimes difficult and painful to tell, with people who would understand what it was they were going through. For the people who watch the show, whether they are POCs or not, I hope they understand that we aren’t trying to point fingers or blame anyone about what it is we’re going through. Instead, I want the audience to take note of our discussions and try to understand what it is we’re saying and why it’s important to us.” – Alley Wilson, producer of Living In Colour

Do I belong? 

Before coming to Canada, I never had any issues or struggles with my identity.  During my interview, I told Farah that one of my biggest challenges had been renegotiating my identity and finding a community that I can belong to.

This is a very complicated experience for many immigrants.  Negotiating a new identity and adapting to a new social location can be tough — but It is a self reflection journey that we should take. This journey has taught me that after so many years trying to desperately fit it, I now embrace my identity, who I am and feel a sense of pride that no one has the right to ever take from me. No one has the right to make me feel as if I don’t belong. 

Many immigrants don’t feel the same way. During the interview, I wanted to share my  self-reflection journey. I tell people that I will forever be an immigrant and, although I came to the realization of self-acceptance, the feeling of otherness in this country became my shadow — so do we really belong? Does that feeling exist in one of the most diverse countries in the world? Do we connect  despite our differences? Do people appreciate those differences? 

Everybody needs a helping hand at the beginning of their journey but are we giving these immigrants a helping hand or we are slamming the door behind us and saying enough of these immigrants? In the next blog I hope to start a conversation about how best to help.

—Sara Asalya

Newcomer Students’ Association’s Statement on Racial Justice

Like all of you, we are pained and deeply saddened by these recent tragedies. We stand firmly with the Black community and the Black Lives Matter movement. We are mourning the deaths of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and all of the Black lives that have been lost due to senseless police brutality and white supremacy. 

At its core, the Newcomer Students’ Association of Ryerson is about inclusivity and community. We stand in complete solidarity with the Black community, who has long faced racial injustice and unrest. We also stand in solidarity with #NotAnotherBlackLife, who organized a powerful and peaceful protest in Toronto this past weekend. 

Our organization is built on the foundations of equality, diversity and the importance of communities coming together to support one another. Black people have suffered under the oppressive weight of systemic racism in North America for too long and it must end. 

We are committed to taking the necessary steps to further our learning and confronting anti-Black racism within our own communities, neighbourhoods and institutions. We will hold ourselves accountable and pledge to never stop having uncomfortable and necessary conversations, calling out racism, and engaging the NSAR community in ongoing dialogue around this absolutely crucial and essential movement. 

NSAR demands justice in the cases of George Floyd, Regis Korchiniski-Paquet, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and all cases of anti-Black racism and police brutality. We stand with protestors and their right to remain safe, respected and heard. We demand that substantial funding be allocated to fighting racism in Canada and provoking real, long-lasting change in ending anti-Black racism and providing equal opportunities to marginalized groups. 

We encourage you to support the following Toronto-based organizations that are working tirelessly to end racial injustice in Canada: 

Black Legal Action Centre
Black Women in Motion 
Black Lives Matter Toronto

In solidarity,
Newcomer Students’ Association

The Ford Government Continues to Fail Families

Recently, the Ontario government announced its plan to reopen child care centres across the province. Unfortunately, this plan is not without flaws. The proposed strategy, which was given to child care centres only three days in advance of reopening, features 20 pages of new protocols and safety procedures, such as fewer children, no visitors and heightened cleaning measures. This will undoubtedly increase operating costs, yet the government has offered no extra funding. This does not serve the needs of parents nor does it support child care providers. Child care advocates have described it as “half-baked, at best” and “grossly misinformed”. It’s a plan that doesn’t prioritize families—a critique that often surrounds the Ford government’s policies. As Carolyn Ferns of the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care states, “The implementation of the government reopening of child care guidelines is impossible without proper support.”

There is no doubt that this pandemic has hit communities who are socially and economically disadvantaged the hardest, and this is especially true for women. According to Statistics Canada, over 1.5 million women lost their jobs in March and April. As the economy reopens, women will struggle to  regain their pandemic job losses. According to Heather Scoffield, an economist columnist at The Star, “men have regained about 15 per cent of their pandemic losses; women, about five per cent”. For mothers with preschool age children, employment levels rose just two per cent.

We can’t reopen the economy without having a clear plan to support families in post-pandemic recovery. Canadian women contribute about 40 per cent of household income. Therefore, there can be “no recovery without a she-covery,” and there can be no she-covery without child care. In one of Prime Minister Trudeau’s daily COVID-19 updates, he acknowledged that “this is one of the first recessions we’ve ever seen that has so hard hit vulnerable workers in the service sector, particularly women, new Canadians and young people.”

The child care system in Ontario is  broken and chronically underfunded. To make things worse, the sector has been recently suffering funding cuts introduced by the Ford government. Needless to mention that Ontarians pay the highest child care fees in the country, and Torontonians pay the highest infant care fees, estimated at an astounding $1,685 per month. We shouldn’t lose sight of the cracks and gaping holes in the system as we move forward with plans to reopen. The government’s rushed plan will push vulnerable women and working moms further into precarity. 

Prime Minister Trudeau acknowledged that “the need for child care has never been made clearer”. Clearly, stating the obvious doesn’t help the situation here. What families need is an action plan in place to support them, their children, early childhood educators and child care providers. A national child care strategy is indeed warranted. 

Child care operators are scrambling to meet the new safety guidelines announced by the government, which come with no promises of funding to support increased operational costs (such as the need for extra staffing, personal protective equipment, staff training and cleaning supplies). Advocates and operators expressed their concerns about this plan. One of these concerns is the government’s decision to reopen without giving adequate notice to centres, and with a lack of consultations with experts. Furthermore, the government didn’t address the retroactive funding decision that has left child care organizations across the province in a deficit position. Instead, the Ford government’s plan has left child care operators hanging, with many unanswered questions. 

Some child care centres refuse to reopen until the province meets their funding conditions. Sheila Olan-Maclean,  CEO of Compass Early Learning & Care and President of the Board of the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care indicated that her organization is  almost $ 600,000 in deficit due to subsidizing their employee wages. She expressed concerns about being able to pay her staff a decent wage and questioned how child care centres are supposed to operate under the new guidelines. The ramifications of this plan could be equally devastating as almost 56,000 children in Toronto could be without daycare under this plan. 

Former Premier Kathleen Wynne rightly called the plan an “unrealistic, ill-considered instruction that is bound to fail”.  On top of this, the government has made clear that stiff fines have been put in place if child care centres do not comply with the reopening guidelines. 

We join many parents in voicing concerns about the reopening plan, including the fact that potential increases in child care costs will fall on the shoulders of  parents. Although Minister Lecce has promised to avoid increased fees, advocates argue that with no increase or government financial support, many child care centres will go bankrupt and be forced to shut down. 

Families are already struggling financially under COVID-19, as the old system does not work with or for us. It is high time that the needs of all families are taken into account as Ontario phases out strict public health measures. Now is the time to finally establish a national affordable and accessible child care system. 

The Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care and the Association of Early Childhood Educators of Ontario published an eye-opening report about a child care plan for Ontario. The report included 27 detailed recommendations for safe and healthy reopening of child care centres, including providing a minimum of three weeks’ notice prior to opening. Sadly, advocates say that the Ontario government didn’t consider most of these recommendations. Last week over 1500 individuals participated in a #FordFailsFamilies digital rally. More than 22,000 people signed an open letter to Ford and Lecce urging them to support and fund a safe child care reopening and recovery plan. Advocates are also calling for significant emergency funding about triple the government’s current child care budget to help centres safely reopen.

As two immigrant women, we have never reconciled with its unbearable costs. Many families simply cannot afford the rising costs and this is especially true for low-income families and newly arrived immigrants. If we want a just and fair recovery that acknowledges the gendered impact of this pandemic, then politicians need to listen to our needs and, once and for all, put families first.

—Sara Asalya and Souzan Michael Galway

A Note From Our Founder…

Since launching in 2016 as the Newcomer Students’ Association of Ryerson (NSAR), we have been on a mission to support and empower newcomer students at Toronto’s Ryerson University. Since then, we have expanded our operations and services to respond to the needs and support hundreds of newcomer students from different higher education institutions in Canada. We’ve built partnerships with more than 50 organizations, academic departments, student societies and groups. We have organized a variety of events and public forums to raise awareness about newcomer students’ challenges and issues, built solidarity with various communities, and delivered many workshops and training sessions to support the integration and transition process of immigrant women. Our programs focus on building civic engagement and leadership for immigrant women as well as building solidarity and allyship between newcomers and indigenous communities and bridging the dialogue between Indigeneity and immigration. Hundreds of newcomer students have attended our events and programs, and we look forward to continuing to grow and reaching out to more students.

I am thrilled to announce that going forward, we will be operating under the name Newcomer Students’ Association. Our story started at Ryerson University and for the past four years, our name has been The Newcomer Students’ Association of Ryerson. However, we recognize that name has prevented many newcomer students from reaching out to us and seeking support as the name implies that we only service newcomer students at Ryerson University. This is no longer the case. Our name has changed to encourage more students to get involved with our work and to allow us to better understand their needs and serve them.

That being said, newcomers, immigrants, and refugees who are not enrolled in a post-secondary institution are also welcome to join this community by filling out a membership form, found on our website. Our services and programs are accessible to all and are offered at no cost. 

Our new logo represents the work we do in creating pathways and space for newcomers, immigrants and refugees who are starting a new chapter of life. We want our members to continue sharing their lived experiences through storytelling, genuine and authentic connection, and community building. The colours represent the diversity and multiculturalism of those who come to the Newcomer Students’ Association, from different walks of life. The newcomer, immigrant and refugee community has always been at the heart of what we do, and we wanted our logo to be a reflection of our commitment to them.

Our mission remains the same: “to provide a safe space to empower newcomers and their allies to build fellowship, capacity, and community.” Make sure to subscribe to our newsletter below and to follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.

—Sara Asalya