Last winter, I watched the first images of Syrian refugees arriving in Canada and was moved by boys and girls eagerly taking in the newness of Canadian society. What struck me, however, were the refugee families resettling in small towns and rural areas and the unseen challenges they will face in building a community. I also thought about how the children’s experience of conflict, trauma and displacement will always be a defining feature of their Canadianness.
I have not had the same experience of forced migration, but since I moved to Cape Breton Island with my Pakistani family in 1993, I have thought a lot about variations in the Canadian immigration experience – and been particularly attuned to those who have immigrated to rural settings. Like those Syrian children moving to small communities, at seven years old I arrived in a new place where few people looked like me, leaving my known home continents away. I have had a luckier path – my parents, trained as psychiatrists in Pakistan and the U.K., chose to relocate to Canada for job stability and more accessible public education for their children. Still, I suspect my parents strongly felt the loss of their home and distance from their culture.
I remember my first months in Sydney, Nova Scotia, vividly. We were welcomed by a small community of immigrants who had made it their home since the 1980s. Bangladeshi, Indian, East African, West Indian and Lebanese families gathered their resources and helped us; it would be months until my parents would find work, and, with three children, setting up a new life would take time. We had donated furniture and toys, weekend potluck dinners with an array of cuisines, and religious classes in a makeshift basement mosque. The make-do mentality of that time remains with me: immigrants are incredibly resourceful and build with whatever they have at their disposal.
My time at school was less smooth. I often found myself the butt of mean jokes. My mother wanted me to carry my culture proudly, and when this translated into home-cooked school lunches or talent show performances, I was constantly mocked for how different I was. I lacked the tools to challenge how my background and appearance were judged.
In middle school, I competed in a public-speaking competition on how media portrayals of the “Third World” were limited. A classmate decided to speak on “The Oppression of All Women in Pakistan,” based on a single news story she had read. I felt invisible and personally misrepresented, which compelled a lifelong desire to challenge stereotypes and create more visibility for migrants and people from diverse backgrounds.
When I left Cape Breton in 2003 to study at U of T, I expected to “blend in” and to find a place where I did not have to explain myself. The reality was, it took a lot of time to build a community. Even my friends raised in big cities didn’t quite get how migrant experiences can vary. I found meaning and purpose through community work that allowed me to engage with marginalized populations through U of T’s International Health Program. This work also inspired me to think about achieving social change through arts and media. My encounters with newcomers helped me understand issues of class and segregation in urban centres. I grew frustrated that the version of multiculturalism presented of Canada in various sources overlooked specific histories and experiences – including my own in a rural setting.
I’ve always been driven to be part of projects that I wish had been there for me. I see the power that media and storytelling have, and so I am creating a platform online that is reserved for first-person experiences and views of migrants. I can only hope that this reaches an immigrant or refugee newly arriving in a remote Canadian community, giving them the power to know that their story is important and relevant.
Sana Malik is a journalist, global development consultant and founder of thisisworldtown.com, launching in June. She earned a BA from Victoria College in 2008 in peace and conflict studies and diaspora and transnational studies.