By Sia Papadopoulos
Statistics Canada released results on Immigration and ethnocultural diversity from the 2016 Census, and found that more than one in five Canadians are foreign-born.
From 2011 to 2016, Canada had 1,212,075 new immigrants who became permanent Canadian residents. In total, foreign-born individuals make up 21.9% of Canada’s total population. Despite immigrants settling in various places across Canada, Toronto still remains home to most of Canada’s immigrants. In 2016, immigrants made up 46.1% of Toronto’s population.
While there are many organizations working to assist immigrants as they settle into Canadian society, there are only a slim amount of organizations working to preserve and celebrate their cultural backgrounds. Women specifically may develop feelings of isolation during the integration process, being surrounded by a culture and people who are unfamiliar to them. The goal however, is to find a balance between integrating immigrant women into Canadian society, without stripping them of their culture. Below are three examples of organizations and projects in Toronto who have been able to find this balance, by preserving the culture of immigrant women, and celebrating their unique qualities.
The Immigrant Writers Association (IWA) is a non-profit organization that works to empower and support immigrants, by providing them with the opportunity to express themselves through writing. Although the organization doesn’t strictly work with women, Founder and President Gabriela Casineanu, an immigrant woman herself, found it difficult to navigate the publishing landscape on her own. After self-publishing her first book, Introverts: Leverage Your Strength for an Effective Job Search, that became an Amazon best-seller in nine countries, Casineanu wanted to create a platform that allowed immigrants’ voices to be heard. “Immigrants have a lot to offer,” Casineanu said. “We come from all over the world, bringing with us rich experiences, knowledge, and expertise that often gets unnoticed or sidetracked while building our lives in a new country.”
Casineanu explained how writing is often recommended by psychologists and therapists for its therapeutic benefits. “Sometimes it is easier to express ourselves through writing, instead of verbalizing our emotions, thoughts, and behaviours. And by doing so, we allow ourselves to reconcile with situations from the past and let go of the emotions that got trapped inside causing distress and even illness.”
Not only is writing beneficial for immigrants, but it is important for Canadians to read stories by people with different cultures and backgrounds. “Immigrant stories – coming from different cultures – could expose people to different perspectives, often overlooked,” Casineanu said. “These are often stories of resilience and courage, infused with complex feelings and nuances that reconnect us with our humanity.”
IWA offers both a paid ($100/year), and free membership to writers or upcoming writers who are Canadian immigrants and immigrant descendants, by simply filling out a membership application form.
The Sisters Project is a photography series that captures and showcases the lives of Muslim women, who have felt both misrepresented and marginalized in mainstream media. Alia Youssef, an immigrant woman herself who started The Sisters Project, struggled with the way that Muslim women were represented in the media. To change this, Youssef began photographing Muslim women, both immigrants and native-born, collaborating with over 160 women from 12 cities across Canada. Youssef explains that she feels The Sister Project is able to change the way Muslim women are represented in the media by, “photographing them in places that are meaningful to their stories, but also to share more about who these women are, their passions, dreams, and how they impact Canadian society.”
Youssef’s main goal with The Sisters Project is to combat the stereotypes on Muslim women that the media often perpetuates. “Throughout recent history, mass media has often depicted Muslim women in one way: a silent, oppressed, sad-looking-veiled woman, who is in need of saving,” Youssef explained. “This stereotype has subjected woman to harsh prejudice, an increase in hate crimes, and has become the basis for widespread Islamophobia.” Youssef believes that there is so much to be learned through the sharing and listening of Muslim women’s stories. Her stunning photos are accompanied by written text, to learn more about the stories behind the Muslim women she photographs.
Youssef hopes to empower other Muslims or Muslim immigrant women through her project. “I am a big advocate in the power of seeing people like yourself depicted in every day media,” Youssef said. “My hope is that people will feel inspired by the stories shared within the project and will feel empowered in their own lives, by seeing other Muslim women across Canada doing incredible things.” Not only is Youssef looking to empower other Muslim women, but states that she hopes the amazing stories and photographs shared through The Sisters Project will help people “reflect on any previously held assumptions they may have.”
The Newcomer Kitchen, is a way for Syrian women to prepare traditional dishes, preserving a huge part of their culture as they settle in Toronto. The Newcomer Kitchen invites Syrian refugee women to cook a weekly meal, and every Wednesday the community can purchase a meal, with all the proceeds going directly to the Syrian women. Along with weekly meals, the Newcomer Kitchen also has “Guess Cook” event where the community can sign up for cooking classes by the Syrian women themselves.
Cara Benjamin-Pace - Executive Director, Newcomer Kitchen, believes it is very important to preserve immigrant women’s culture and identity. “The newcomer women I have met through the Newcomer Kitchen project actually have a strong sense of who they are and where they come from,” Benjamin-Pace said. “They have cultural traditions and these traditions help ground them in their new home.” The Newcomer Kitchen gives these women a chance to share some of their favourite meals with the people in their new home.
Not only are the Syrian dishes something to share with Toronto, but the way the food is prepared and shared is something that Benjamin-Pace believes Canadians have lost. “One thing I have come to appreciate about these ladies is that they take time to eat. They don’t eat on the run,” Benjamin-Pace said. “They plan and create a space for food, and the function that brings people together to sit and enjoy both the food, and each other.”
Immigrant women have so much to offer. They bring stories with them, along with many experiences, and traditions that enrich Canadian culture. With such a high population of immigrants in Toronto, we as Torontonians should be thankful that our community is filled with such a diverse group of people. Learning from the organizations and projects above, it is important to encourage, celebrate and learn from the contributions of all immigrant women.