Ratna Omidvar is the chair of the TRIEC founding board of directors.
The Maytree Foundation’s Ratna Omidvar had to struggle to gain entry into Canada; once here, she realized that she had to strike a bargain with her new country to become the leader in her own immigrant success story
May 1, 2007
There was no welcome mat waiting for Ratna Omidvar in Canada. In fact, the door to Canada was shut solidly in her face. But Punjab-born Omidvar and her Iranian husband, Mehran, didn’t walk away. They just kept knocking.
“We were turned down in three days,” says Omidvar. “It was really disappointing, because we had set our sights on Canada.”
The couple had left Iran in the early 1980s – “it was either leave Iran or my husband would have had to fight against Iraq” – and travelled to Germany. From there, they wanted to immigrate to one of three countries – Canada, the United States or Australia.
“We weren’t attracted to the United States particularly because of our experiences with American imperialism, and Australia is so far from everything. Plus, we had family and friends in Canada, so it was hugely disappointing when we were denied.”
They were disappointed – and confused. “We spoke English, had education, we didn’t understand why.” But instead of giving up, they launched what Omidvar calls a “mini campaign” to get to Canada, with help from Canadian friends like filmmaker Deepa Mehta.
“What you know is important, but who you know is perhaps more so,” she says. “The system is fair, but not entirely fair. I wish they had rejected me for reasons I did understand.”
Despite the initial rejection, Omidvar was “incredibly happy” when the door to Canada finally swung open. Stepping over the threshold into life in Toronto wasn’t so easy, however.
“I suppose I had this romantic idea of crossing the seven seas to get to heaven. But life’s not like that,” she muses.
The internationally educated teacher couldn’t work in her profession in Canada, and her husband, an engineer, also faced deskilling. “Women can take the process of deskilling easier than men. My first job was as a secretary,” she says, adding that the transition was made all the more difficult because of the deep recession and high interest rates in Canada at the time.
It seems natural to therefore ask her if her struggles as a newcomer led her to her current work as an advocate for immigrants and the poor, namely as executive director of the Toronto-based not-for-profit Maytree Foundation?
“That’s being unnecessarily romantic,” she chuckles.
“What led me to this type of work was largely accidental. I started to get involved in the world of NGOs through my daughter’s childcare at St. Stephen’s Community House. In Iran and Germany, there wasn’t a vibrant civil society sector, so my first experience with the NGO sector in Canada, where no profit was to be made except for the public good, was a huge eye-opener for me.”
She volunteered with St. Stephen’s to help with an event and later was asked to come on staff.
“I stopped being a secretary and became a project officer at St. Stephen’s, which was an immigrant settlement agency that did everything from language training to settlement referral. But it didn’t do any intervention to help immigrants to get jobs.”
Omidvar eventually rose to the position of director, but wanted to do more. “I and a bunch of my colleagues recognized that we needed an organization to help immigrants get jobs.” They started an agency called ACCES in 1985 to do just that.
“We started in the basement of church with three counsellors,” she says. “Today, it’s huge organization, all over the GTA, that does many, many things.”
Although she’s no longer directly involved with ACCES, she has continued her work in helping immigrants integrate into the labour market in her current role with the Maytree Foundation. One of the foundation’s big projects was the creation of the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC) in 2003 to help skilled immigrants access their professional fields.
Despite all the work she has put into helping newcomers integrate, Omidvar is very pragmatic about the state of immigrant settlement in Canada. “I would say that it’s a bargain we make with this nation, and that this nation makes with us, and both sides have to live up to the bargain,” she says.
“We will work hard and try to learn your customs and peculiarities, cope with your winter and our children will be Canadian. And you will treat us equally, fairly; you will not treat us differently simply because of our accent, language or the country we came from.”
That bargain can be “fragile at times,” she says, but the right balance can be found.
“For example, my house functions like a Indian household in many ways, with respect for seniors – my mother lives with me. But my daughters [Ramona and Yasmin] search out for new ideas and answers, and teach us so much about technology, being green and so on. That’s true multiculturalism in many ways,” she says.
“It’s false for us to think we can come here, participate here, get economic benefits and send our kids to school here, without also changing our values.”
Omidvar is concerned about the increased isolation, self-imposed or otherwise, that immigrants are experiencing more and more in Toronto. “How do you interact with the rest of world, when all your neighbours come from the same country, even the same village? As a society, we are going down increasingly separate roads.
With technology, it’s easy to live and work in Canada, but, emotionally, many immigrants are living somewhere else. These are issues that should concern us. We need to find a way to connect people to each other here.”
And Omidvar calls on immigrants to lead the way. “Government plays a huge a role, but people should lead. You can’t socially engineer integration; you can’t force people to be friends with each other. We have to think about who we have dinner with. We need to invite people into our homes. We need more neighbourliness.”
Like Omidvar’s example shows, immigrants need to become leaders not only in their own stories, but the story of Canada as a whole.
Reference: Canadian Immigrant Magazine