Farrah Chanda Aslam was born and raised in Toronto’s east end. But it was a U of T Scarborough city studies course that opened her eyes to the experiences of Canadian newcomers in the Kingston-Galloway/Orton Park neighborhood not far from campus.
As part of the course, Aslam did a placement at Newcomer Services for Youth – a program run by the Toronto District School Board. She remembers meeting one young woman from Rwanda, who had lost her entire family in the Rwandan genocide. Unemployed and socially isolated, the newcomer was discouraged, but still grateful for the chance to build a new life in Canada. Aslam also met Iraqis, Congolese and Afghans.
For Aslam, who is pursuing a master’s degree in social work and community development at U of T, the experience gave insights into the difficulties newcomers to Canada face. Their training and degrees often aren’t recognized, and employers want “Canadian experience” before they will hire them. They also often lack family and other social supports. “I learned a lot about the lives of some of these youths – about their prospects for employment. How their parents often don’t have meaningful employment, or have to work three or four jobs to make ends meet,” she says.
Aslam’s experience with newcomers came while she was an undergrad at U of T Scarborough, taking a course designed to get students out into the community. “The city studies courses let students learn about urban issues firsthand on a neighbourhood scale,” says Susannah Bunce, the geography professor who initiated the city studies program in 2008. Because Scarborough is home to so many immigrants, the students inevitably end up working with new Canadians. Often they’re able to help.
Aslam recently received a Facebook message from one Congolese immigrant she met at a newcomer centre where she was volunteering. She helped him navigate through the university application process. He got in touch to say he was now a student at the University of Ottawa.
“The experience teaches you about power and privilege,” says Aslam. “Those are lessons you can apply outside of the classroom.”