#TorontoIsFailingMe: My parents worked round-the-clock to lift us out of poverty

#TorontoIsFailingMe: My parents worked round-the-clock to lift us out of poverty

Toronto’s inner suburbs have become shorthand for crumbling postwar apartment blocks, underfunded schools or gang warfare. They’re among the neighbourhoods with the lowest incomes in the city, the longest trek to a TTC stop, and the highest concentration of immigrants and visible minorities. This month, we’re sharing stories from Torontonians who live in the inner suburbs, told in their own words. Some are shocking, some tragic, some hopeful. Together, they convey an urgent truth: Toronto is failing too many of its citizens. Have a story of your own? Tweet, Facebook, or Instagram with the hashtag #TorontoIsFailingMe to tell us.
#TorontoIsFailingMe: My parents worked round-the-clock to lift us out of poverty Abirami Jeyaratnam at her Victoria Park and Ellesmere semi. (Image: Eamon Mac Mahon)
 

Abirami Jeyaratnam, 29
Victoria Park and Ellesmere

My parents fled Sri Lanka as refugees from the civil war, arriving in Canada 30 years ago. My brother, Gobi, was born in 1981. I was born in Montreal in 1986, and we moved to Toronto in 1987, settling near relatives at Jane and Finch. My father, a high school dropout, loved Canada and thrived here. He worked at an automotive factory and at a KFC. In between, he picked up paper routes, delivery jobs, whatever he could do to make extra cash. He woke up every day at 5 a.m. and usually didn’t finish work until midnight. My mother and we kids would go to pick him up; that car ride was our family time. He worked like that until he had a heart attack in 2000. After he recovered, he took on a position as a security guard at a residential apartment.

My mother never adjusted to life in Canada and felt cut off from her family. Back in Sri Lanka, she had worked as a court stenographer. She couldn’t find a steady job in Toronto—she worked as a lunchroom supervisor at an elementary school, as a receptionist and at a day care; she did data entry at CIBC, mattress stitching, spot welding. None lasted very long and she became depressed. She had these spells when she would sleep all day, unable to do anything. I tried to compensate. In high school, I got a summer job in a cosmetics factory and worked at SportChek after school. I also helped my parents with delivery jobs.

In 2008, my parents finally bought a small semi-detached bungalow near ­Victoria Park and Ellesmere. In 2012, they took a trip to Sri Lanka and India to visit family. On the trip, my father developed a lung infection, experienced complications and died. It was a terrible shock to all of us, especially my mother, who upon returning to Canada experienced a grand mal seizure, as well as several smaller seizures. Despite many tests, doctors weren’t able to diagnose the cause. I think it had to do with her depression and stress.

Today I live with my mother and look after her; she depends on me. I feel like I’ve been cut off from the Canadian dream—I can’t travel or schmooze downtown or worry about my LinkedIn profile. Money is tight: I have a job as a support worker at Pathways to Education, an agency that helps young people from low-income neighbourhoods with ­mentoring and advocacy work. My brother is now married and completing his PhD in public health. I often think about how my parents came here with nothing and still managed to put a roof over our heads. My parents invested in us—we were their RRSPs.

—as told to Aparita Bhandari