Nayamath Syed, 38
My wife and I are originally from India, but spent more than a decade living in Abu Dhabi, where I worked as a computer analyst. Three years ago, when our daughter, Amal, was four, we decided we wanted to give her a first-class education. I quit my job and we moved to Canada in May 2011.
Upon our arrival, I quickly secured a position with an engineering firm, working as a global IT analyst. My family settled in East York, where we found an affordable two-bedroom unit in an apartment complex at Main and Danforth. We’ve lived there ever since—the bulk of our neighbours are Indian and Pakistani, but we also live alongside Filipinos, Koreans, Jamaicans and Ukrainians.
Our first autumn in Toronto, Amal started senior kindergarten at Secord Elementary School near Danforth and Main, which consists of a century-old main building and a convoy of 14 portables connected by hallways. The portables were built two decades ago as a temporary solution to student overflow, but the school has never received the funding to replace them. Over the years, these makeshift buildings have slowly deteriorated—we’ve had raccoon infestations, falling ceiling tiles and water damage. Some parents believe the water is contaminated, and that their kids have developed rashes after drinking from the fountains. Between growing classroom sizes and the arrival of full-day kindergarten in 2014, more and more kids have been forced into the portables.
For Amal’s first two years at Secord, her classes were held in the main building, but in September, she started Grade 2 in the portables. I couldn’t believe the conditions: peeling linoleum, splotchy brown water stains, dripping ceilings and tears in the roof. One of the parents even found patches of black mould. Amal was sick for several days in the first month alone—I can’t help but wonder if the conditions had something to do with that.
When we complained to the TDSB, our trustee told us they couldn’t get funding from the ministry to fix the damage, much less create a new building for the students. The ministry, in turn, said it was the TDSB that hadn’t presented a case for repairs. It’s a never-ending circle of blame. It doesn’t help that much of East York is populated by low-income and immigrant families. For all the talk of “priority neighbourhoods,” we’re obviously not a priority for them.
At the end of October, the parents’ council led a walkout—30 students, including my seven-year-old daughter, stood up at 10 a.m. and left school for the day to protest the decaying facilities. I watched proudly as Amal held up signs and fought for her education. The TDSB finally agreed to a full roof repair on the portables—construction is currently underway. But that isn’t enough: Amal deserves a brick-and-mortar classroom where she can learn in a safe, healthy environment. That’s why we brought her here.
—as told to Emily Landau
Abbas Kolia, 51
When I first came to Toronto in 1980, I was 24. I remember thinking, What a beautiful city. I came from a very small village in Gujarat, India, and had no idea how to live in a western country, but I learned quickly. I got a good job at a factory on Kipling that made the foam for mattresses and pillows. I worked 12-hour shifts seven days a week to pay for a Thorncliffe Park apartment I rented with my two brothers and sister. I eventually married and raised three children here.
Thorncliffe Park is the place where people come to start a new life in Canada. Families arrive from all over the world, they work hard, and then they move to wealthier suburbs. I’m the one who stayed—this is the place I love, so why leave the community? It’s a safe neighbourhood with people from all over the world, where you can walk to grocery stores, schools, mosques, churches.
What makes life hard here is the housing. In 1982, I moved my growing family into our own apartment. These Thorncliffe buildings are 40 years old. When I arrived here there were maybe 9,000 people living in the neighbourhood. Now there are more than 30,000. The buildings are infested with cockroaches, mice, bedbugs and anything else you can name. Our landlord rarely cleans the carpet in my hallway. I can’t bring my friends into my tower’s common area without feeling embarrassed about the dirt. Our last councillor, John Parker, blamed tenants for the conditions, saying they don’t know how to live properly.
In 1992, a neighbour encouraged me to get involved with tenants’ rights. She said: “You have energy, you will fight, you can talk to the immigrants.” I’m now the president of the tenants’ association, and I do my best to help newcomers who don’t know their rights—that the landlord is responsible for leaky pipes and broken toilets, not them.
People always talk about a divide between downtown and the suburbs, but never mind downtown—just look at Leaside, the expensive suburb next door. We’re in the same ward, but the difference between what councillors have done for them versus us is huge. We don’t have any resources for seniors, anything for youth, anything for women. There’s not enough space where people can just get together and enjoy their lives. Walk to Leaside and there are playgrounds, all sorts of facilities for children, beautiful parks.
The difference? We’re immigrants. People think this is all we deserve.
—as told to Nicholas Hune-Brown
David deBelle, 55
I took over as principal at Lawrence Heights Middle School in September 2009. I wanted to work in a challenging neighbourhood, where there is more opportunity to make a real difference. There are one or two major shootings in this area every year, and the impact on the students is enormous. In April 2013, our lunchroom supervisor’s 15-year-old son was shot in the back while walking home from a tutoring session—he survived, but his mother never returned to work, and she moved her family away.
I won’t pretend to know all the reasons for the neighbourhood’s problems, but the easy availability of guns is certainly an issue, and the gangs. Kids are drawn to gangs when they don’t feel like there are a lot of options for them: there aren’t many jobs here, and poverty has an impact on families and on the school. My staff watch out for students who can’t afford the basics—lunches or the mandatory school uniform. Sometimes, I’ll see a kid alone in the cafeteria without a lunch, so I’ll discreetly ask whether he or she has eaten today.
This looks like a normal school, and it’s the stuff we do behind the scenes that makes it feel that way. We create student schedules that minimize movement between classrooms, as studies have shown that kids feel less safe in the halls or outside. We practise school lockdowns every few months, and we take them seriously, keeping everyone below window level to avoid stray bullets. Students find the presence of an adult reassuring, so my staff and I stay visible by walking the halls. When fights break out, I insert myself into the middle and calm things down. The kids always back off because they don’t want to hurt a 55-year-old man. Afterward, I talk to them about handling aggression. These are great kids, from all around the world, and our job is to give them a welcoming environment where they can safely learn. I believe in the power of education to change people’s lives and change a community.
—as told to Alexandra Shimo
Mohamed Farah, 34
In 1989, when I was nine, my parents fled the escalating civil war in Somalia, moving me and my two siblings to Windsor. I fit in quickly at school, where I made friends from Lebanon, Czechoslovakia and Cambodia. I loved it there: we would roam around the neighborhood, trade cards and comics, catch frogs. Then one day a friend of my mother’s told us about a neighbourhood in Toronto called Dixon with a growing Somali population.
A few months later, in the summer of 1992, we moved into a three-bedroom apartment in Dixon. Back then the area was called Little Pakistan. The first time I went grocery shopping with my mother, somebody yelled, “Go back to where you came from, Paki!” There was a sense of different ethnicities struggling to coexist in the area. You had people of Irish, Italian, Pakistani, Polish, Ukrainian, Indian and West Indian descent. In Windsor, the community was diverse, but we stuck together.
At the same time, many more new refugees were coming to Canada from our home country. I remember crossing the street on my way home from school and seeing some of the Somali kids dive to the ground after a car backfired. I was lucky that I had never lived through their traumatic experiences.
My mother was an entrepreneur in Mogadishu, and noticed that there was a demand for Somali traditional and religious clothing among the women in Dixon. She got a second-hand sewing machine and started making clothes. One of the rooms in our apartment became her store, so my siblings and I had to share a room. I acted as a translator for many of my mom’s clients, helping them fill out official forms and going to meetings with their kids’ teachers.
As I got older, I got involved in community work out of concern for other young Somalis. I joined the Dixon Youth Network, which runs initiatives like a basketball league to try and keep the kids off the streets. The youth in the neighbourhood lack access to services like a recreation centre and after-school programs. They hang out on street corners and get into trouble with the police. It’s hard to avoid—guys at my high school asked me to sell drugs at local clubs. Instead I chose to work as a cook at The Keg. I saw those guys drive up to the restaurant in their fancy cars. But they soon got arrested for drug offences.
One day, a guy from the neighbourhood approached me with a video that appeared to show mayor Rob Ford smoking crack. He asked me to act as a broker and try to sell the video to a news company. I was wary of getting involved but thought making the video public would expose corruption. Then the whole thing blew up in my face: I was arrested when the police raided our building and some of the other Dixon towers as part of the Project Traveller investigation. I was charged with possession of a gun, even though I’ve never owned one in my life. The charges were dropped after a year. Instead of the former mayor being held accountable, Dixon got stigmatized, and my relationship with other Somalis in the neighbourhood became strained.
The police have since rolled out initiatives to rebuild a relationship with the community, but that’s not going to solve the root problems: unemployment, underfunded schools and a lack of services such as family counselling. I know parents who are worried about their kids joining extremist groups or gangs. If the issues of neighbourhoods like Dixon aren’t addressed now, I can see how they could escalate into a situation like the Ferguson riots.
—as told to Aparita Bhandari
Arsema Berhane, 32
My father, Tsehaie Berhane, fled Asmara, Eritrea, in the ’80s during the war with Ethiopia. He was a professor, and the Ethiopians were targeting professionals. It took seven years for him to be able to sponsor my mother, Mebrat, myself, and my three siblings, Filmon, Nahom and Salem. We all arrived in Toronto in 1990. It was March 14, the day before Nahom’s 10th birthday. For four months we lived in a one-bedroom in a high-rise near Lawrence Avenue and Black Creek Drive. The four kids shared the bedroom and my parents slept on a pullout couch. We’d never been in an apartment building before, and it felt like a prison compared to Asmara, where there were other children to play with and green space all around us. That July, we moved into a community housing townhouse in Victoria Village. There was a big yard, fields, a school across the street and children from many different cultures. It felt like we had finally arrived at the place we’d envisioned for so long. That was an epic moment for us kids.
The O’Connor Community Centre became our second home. We participated in the day camps as kids, and became staff in our teens, tutoring and providing youth and family support for Parks and Rec. Nahom played basketball there and led summer camps. He worked for Access Alliance, serving mostly South Asian and Middle Eastern newcomers in Crescent Town. All of us work in social services now; I’m a community development manager with TCHC.
This past September, Nahom and I attended a United Way City Leaders event at the 519 Church Street Community Centre. Nahom basically had the mike that night, passionately sharing his ideas for how the organization could grow. Afterward, I went home to my house in the Emery Village area and he went east toward his home in Crescent Town. He texted at 11:30 p.m. to say good night, then met a couple of friends at a bar on the Danforth near Greenwood. Around 3 a.m., he left for home. Apparently he encouraged some young guys he knew who were outside to do the same, and that’s when a 23-year-old man he’d never met stabbed him. It was a totally random attack. (The man fled and was arrested the next day.)
At 5 a.m. I was awoken by a call from my brother Filmon’s wife, Beth, who told me Nahom was in emergency at Toronto East General. I dropped to my knees and prayed, but at no point did I think he was dead or that it had to do with a fight. I assumed it was a car accident. Filmon was there when I arrived. He had been to the scene and had Nahom’s blood on him. He told me how Nahom had been stabbed. Filmon was adamant that we not call my parents until we had some information, because he didn’t want them to panic. Three hours passed and no one would tell us anything. It was weird. We finally decided to call our father, and he came to the hospital. Around 10:30 a.m. the doctors and detectives told us Nahom was dead—they had been held up because they weren’t 100 per cent sure it was him on his ID.
That was the first time in my life I heard my father cry. It was piercing; I can still remember it. I just tried to hold it together. At that point I put on my social work hat and became the main contact for the police and media. We went home and broke the news to my mom. She started wailing: “What do you mean my son is dead?”
The initial online conversations claimed Nahom was involved in gangs, which couldn’t be further from the truth. He was a young professional and a contributing member of society. Around 1,500 people came to his funeral, including a number of people Nahom had helped through his work. With his advice, one woman was able to start a small business. Nahom helped one young man develop a music portfolio. He’d created his own vibrant community.
—as told to Anupa Mistry
Munira Abukar, 22
My parents came to Toronto from Somalia during the civil war. I’m the fourth of nine children: eight girls and one boy. I still live with my parents, in the same five-bedroom townhouse where I grew up. My dad has always supported us on a taxi-driver’s income; my mom stayed home and took care of us kids. My brother joined the Canadian military six years ago and helps with the bills. It’s been a challenge, but my parents are strong-willed and determined.
I loved growing up in Etobicoke. There were always kids around: whether you wanted to play soccer or basketball in the summer or build snow forts in the winter. There were always adults around, too—to help you if you were in trouble, or to scold you if you needed a scolding. Now I’m that adult: if I see a young guy outside and it’s 10 p.m. and I know he’s supposed to be at home, I’ll say, “Hey, go home!” and he’ll go right away. That’s a strong neighbourhood.
The first time I really got involved in the community was when I was 13. At the time we had a community centre with an after-school tutoring program. One day I showed up and the program had been shut down without notice. I was so frustrated. When Toronto Community Housing later held a meeting, my mom told me I should go and speak out. I did, and after the meeting we got our program back.
People in our neighbourhood often don’t have a strong sense of self-worth. Everyone is always telling them they can’t do things—and outsiders seem so surprised when they succeed. In 2010, I enrolled in the criminology program at Ryerson University. Someone asked me where I lived, and when I said Rexdale, they told me, “Wow. You live there and you go to school here?” It’s hard to imagine yourself sitting at a desk in university, if all your life you’ve been told university isn’t for you.
It’s the same with politics. I saw that my parents and the rest of the community were tired of voting for someone they thought would bring change and not seeing it happen. No one reflected their life experiences, their ideas and their beliefs. I wanted to demonstrate that there are options, so last year I entered the race for councillor in Ward 2. I ran against Rob Ford, knowing I had little chance of beating him. My goal was to show people that it’s possible for one of them to run for office.
What happened during the campaign shocked me. People wrote “Bitch” and “Go back home” on my campaign signs. Being a target made me feel incredibly vulnerable. Then my signs started disappearing. We let the city know, but they said there wasn’t anything they could do. After the election was over, whoever stole the signs placed them back up all over the neighbourhood—likely knowing I’d be fined for it. In total, there were 154 put back up, and in November I received an invoice from Municipal Licensing and Standards for more than $4,000. I’m still fighting the charge—I followed all the rules and shouldn’t be penalized. The racism hit my team pretty hard; it took a lot out of them. The youngest volunteer was only 11 or 12, and they’d never faced anything like it. But I tried to teach them we could persevere past it. People only do this because they have hate in their hearts; you don’t have to give them any space in yours.
—as told to Lauren McKeon
Rajeev Sathiyaseelan, 26
I was born in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, in 1988. My mother moved to Canada a year later, and my father followed soon after. But they left me in Jaffna with my maternal grandparents until 1991, when they were able to bring us all to Toronto. We lived in a three-bedroom townhouse in Rexdale with my mother’s family. There were seven of us in the house—and I shared a room with my parents. My brother was born in 1993.
My dad never got along with my mother’s family, and in 2002, we finally moved to our own place at Victoria Park and Lawrence. Still, my parents split up soon after, and everything became harder. I was living with my mother and brother; my father was completely out of the picture. My mother started working four jobs just to pay rent. She worked in the food court in Scarborough’s Parkway Mall and various packing jobs in factories. For a while she worked in a strip of townhomes, mopping the hallways after midnight. She didn’t have a car or money for the TTC, so she’d ride a bike to work, even in winter. She tried to give us a typical Canadian life. She would take me and my brother to the movies, and to save money she’d wait outside. She’d bring us food back from the places she worked, and that was dinner. She got welfare, visited food banks and bought second-hand toys for us at the Goodwill. She did whatever she could.
I hung out with guys who were four or five years older than me at Wexford Collegiate. Some of them were in gangs or knew guys who were in gangs. These guys had cars, money, girls—I wanted to be like that. Our gang would get into fights with gangs from other parts of the city. If we saw a guy from another gang in our neighbourhood, we would rush him with bats or beer bottles, and if they saw someone from our crew, same thing.
I broke into cars to steal whatever was hidden in the glove compartment and was arrested three times. I got lucky: I was charged as a young offender but given community service, no jail time. My mom was in and out of courts, bailing me out, putting up money I knew she didn’t have. We had a lot of arguments. I thought she was just being mean; I felt like she didn’t understand what I was going through and what I wanted from life. Of course, I didn’t think about what she was going through—she had escaped a war-torn island so that her kids could go to university.
In 2008, when I was 17, my mom and brother and I moved in with my uncle and his family in Mississauga, near Square One. My mom was trying to get me away from the gangs and the people she thought were a bad influence. My uncles had come here as teenagers, so they knew what it was like to be a young male growing up. I started connecting with my family, my musical roots. One of my uncles is a drummer, another is a singer. One of them bought me a mike and production software. I began recording myself, singing about my life, and completed a film and TV production diploma at the Trebas Institute.
I set up my own independent label, Freedom Records Entertainment, but my music flopped and I became severely depressed. I saw other guys with degrees and suits and nice jobs. I’d just wake up, turn on the TV and sit there. I had always been obsessed with Tamil movies and Tamil popular music. I decided I needed to go to Chennai, home to the Tamil film industry, to find inspiration. My mom saw the mess I was in, and saved up to buy me a plane ticket. I lived in Chennai for a month and a half. I hustled hard and ended up working for some Tamil film music composers, rapping and singing on 14 movie soundtracks.
I was getting work but only making enough to pay rent. The Ontario government was demanding I pay back my OSAP loans, and I had multiple creditors calling about my credit card debts. All in all, I think I owed around $30,000. So I flew back and moved in with my mom. I got hired as an administrator at Core Logistics, which handles imports and exports. I’m working full-time and still live with my mom. I recently sent her on a vacation to Cuba, the first time she’s gone anywhere since moving to Canada. In my spare time I make music as Tha Prophecy—I’ve built a recording booth in a closet. It seems far off, but I still dream of making it big as a rapper.
—as told to Aparita Bhandari
Abdul Nur, 19
Jane and Finch
I grew up in a five-bedroom townhouse in the Edgeley Village community housing complex. My whole life I had neighbours and friends who looked out for me. I have seven brothers and sisters, five older than me and two younger. My dad was a veterinarian in Somalia, but he now works in a shipping department. My mom keeps me on the right path.
When I was 16, I hung around with guys who would just roam the streets; we were like a flock of sheep, all following each other. Then one day in 2012, two of my friends got arrested on robbery charges. Police ransacked the community centre, taking them out in handcuffs, shoving them inside cruisers. And I’m watching this thinking, “Yo, these are the people I’m running around with.” I realized that would be me soon, getting carted away. I stopped hanging around with them after that.
Instead, I spent my time volunteering with a community group, Success Beyond Limits. Some of my older siblings had been involved in the program, which uses youth leaders to teach other kids about education and life goals. I worked with them as a peer mentor over four years. Today I teach a spoken word workshop once a week, and we’re taking a group from the community to perform at the Parapan Games this summer.
I graduated high school in 2013 but returned for another semester to improve my grades. I’m now in my first year at York—it’s a 10-minute walk from our house. I’m studying business management but thinking of switching to poli-sci. My mom always wanted me to be a doctor, but I want to be a teacher so that I can go back and teach in the community. I want to have a hand in how young people at Jane and Finch will grow up. They don’t have enough role models. If you’re a teacher, you’re going to be with them through some of the crucial points in their lives; you can have a huge influence.
—as told to Lauren McKeon
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
Wilma Inniss, 77
I came to Canada from Trinidad in 1963. When I retired from my job at the Ministry of Transportation 14 years ago, a couple of my friends told me about a seniors’ walking group at the Malvern Town Centre. I’ve been going ever since, and I now run the program with my younger sister, Gemma.
We meet three times a week, on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings, and do laps through the mall from 7:30 to 8:30. And then we do aerobics. We’ve got more than a hundred members, mostly women but some men as well. It’s a mixed crowd, but the majority are from Caribbean islands—Trinidad, Barbados, St. Lucia. I lead the exercise class once or twice a week. We organize dances, dinners, casino trips. You have to pay a toonie a month, and we use that money for birthday parties and to help each other. If someone gets sick or a family member passes away, the walkers make a donation.
Walking through the mall for so long, I’ve seen the good and the bad. A few years ago, you’d see Malvern in the news all the time—stories about shootings and violence. A barber was killed at the mall in 2012, and there was a shooting in the parking lot last May—but those incidents are rare. Mostly it’s just people making mischief. At lunchtime, it’s full of kids eating at the McDonald’s and hanging out. Occasionally you’ll see a big crowd and someone will say, “Oh, somebody just snatched that woman’s purse.” But I don’t feel threatened—I’m here with my friends. I like to feel we’ve made a difference.
—as told to Nicholas Hune-Brown