Tag Archives: Immigrants

Sharing our Shared Journey: You are Among Friends

Aamer Esmail

By Aamer Esmail, former Manager of Youth and LGBTQ+ Services at Access Alliance.  Aamer is currently the  Newcomer Community Engagement Coordinator at Supporting Our Youth at Sherbourne Health Centre 

As Toronto welcomes and celebrates World Pride this week to highlight lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer (LGBTQ+) communities in Toronto and around the World, Access Alliance is celebrating its commitment to being an inclusive and positive space for LGBTQ+ and newcomer clients, staff and community members.

My own journey of settling in Canada has been shaped by organizations like Access Alliance. When I arrived here in 2003, I didn’t know anyone and did not have much of an idea of what life would be like. I quickly started attending and volunteering with LGBTQ+ community organizations as it gave me an outlet to meet new people, learn new skills and not feel so alone in my settlement process.

But for many of my peers, it was a struggle.

It was a struggle to find spaces that were accepting of us – of our newcomer identities and our LGBTQ+ identities. At times we had to prioritize one over the other just to fit in. At times we hid one to not stand out. At times we just didn’t show up as it was easier to remain invisible.

So what changed?

Back in 2009, I had the privilege of coordinating the Among Friends Initiative, a project I had previously been an advisory member to.  A partnership between Access Alliance, The 519 Church Street Community Centre and CultureLink, the aim of the initiative was to recruit and train LGBTQ+ newcomer volunteers, and together we trained service providers in Toronto on how to better serve LGBTQ+ newcomers. This meant services for LGBTQ+ newcomers needed to be competent to support their settlement process while also being LGBTQ+ inclusive and positive. Over 400 providers were trained when the project ended in 2010 and we thought we were done.

But we weren’t.

We were at a crossroads.

Was this it for our LGBTQ+ newcomer programming as around the same time many other programs like the Stepping Up to the Plate project and LGBTQ+ Settlement Services were wrapping up?

How would we ensure that those LGBTQ+ newcomer volunteers that were part of Among Friends would continue to stay engaged and help transform Access Alliance to the next level? How would we work together with partners and funders to prioritize LGBTQ+ newcomer communities as a key population to invest in?

At every level of the organization – staff, management, and board – there was a commitment to continue.

And so we did.

We reviewed each program and service area at Access Alliance to ensure that LGBTQ+ newcomers were included in the outreach and delivery. Staff and board were trained about LGBTQ+ positive spaces. LGBTQ+ newcomers were mentioned in every grant application as a priority population that Access Alliance was mandated to serve regardless of the type of service provided. Annual Pride events at our east and west Toronto locations took place to not only celebrate LGBTQ+ communities but also to raise awareness within other client populations about our commitment to diversity and inclusivity.

Every step counted. Our programming specific for LGBTQ+ newcomers evolved dramatically. From the small grant to create the You Are Among Friends booklet, to the year long NewTQs Project, to now having funding from the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration for one on one and group settlement services for LGBTQ+ newcomers.

And I evolved as well. I went from being a youth who didn’t know anyone when I arrived to Toronto to being the Manager for LGBTQ+ and newcomer services at Access Alliance – working along my peers to shape what services can look like for LGBTQ+ newcomers.

There is still a lot to do. Many of us are still invisible in our communities, our workplaces, our families and even to ourselves.  And while Access Alliance has come a long way, we are not stopping anytime soon!

Links to resources:

Access Alliance is celebrating 25 years of service to newcomer populations in Toronto. Our journey has been a collaboration between people sharing the vision of a society in which all of its people, whether born into citizenry or newcomers to Canada, have equal access to health services. Today, we commemorate 25 years of helping newcomers achieve health with dignity and in finding a sense of belonging within an open and safe community. In recognition of this milestone, Newcomer Health Matters will host a special series of blog posts, each entry published on the 25th day of every month up until the end of the year. See the previous post in this series.



Sharing our Shared Journey: How Good Food Builds Healthy Neighbourhoods

Board_Jason_MarinJason Marin, Vice-Chair on Board of Directors at Access Alliance. His extensive volunteering with community agencies includes Eva’s Initiatives and Access Alliance. Jason currently works  in the Office of Governing Council at the University of Toronto.


As the images flickered across the screen and laughter poured through the speakers, I couldn’t stop smiling. It was Access Alliance’s 2010 Annual General Meeting, and the organization’s membership was watching a presentation about the Newcomer Cooking Class for Men program. I was there to be elected as a new member of the Board of Directors.

Over the course of 10 or 15 minutes, we watched how a group of newly arrived—and often single—male-identified immigrants and refugees of all ages and backgrounds learned how to dice and chop, cook and bake, and navigate Canadian grocery stores on a budget. The feeling of camaraderie and pride for what they had accomplished was palpable.

It is a truly amazing and unique program. Led by two incredibly talented and certified dietitians, participants are taught how to make healthy eating choices and prepare nutritious meals that are also culturally relevant. I recall that every participant presented a recipe from their home country for the group to make, and if I had been there, I would have brought a recipe for gallo pinto, a rice and beans dish that is popular in Costa Rica, where I was born and raised.

What I love about the program is that participants are empowered with tools and knowledge that have a direct effect on their health and well-being. And it is done in a culturally sensitive and relevant environment. Imagine moving to a new country with no family and learning how to feed yourself with food that you can afford and that makes you feel good about yourself. It’s an incredible experience.

Since I first heard the expression that Toronto is a city of neighbourhoods, I have come to believe that we are truly blessed to have neighbours who appreciate culinary traditions from around the world. For example, just around the corner from Access Alliance’s office, there are restaurants that serve Ethiopian, Mexican, Italian, and Japanese food. Toronto’s newest ethnic restaurants adorn many cover pages for Toronto Life, The Grid, NOW Magazine, and are featured in write-ups for lots of newspapers.

Many of our neighbours, however, do not experience this world. Many of them do not have the opportunity to eat out at restaurants, buy nutritious food – or buy food at all. These neighbours experience food insecurity, which is one of Canada’s greatest challenges, and the reality for many families.

The CBC reported on February 6, 2014 that according to a researcher at the University of Toronto, “Food insecurity – lack of access to sufficient, health food – is either not getting any better or is getting worse in all parts of Canada”.
The report is based on Statistic Canada’s 2012 Community Health Survey which found that households with children had the highest rates of food insecurity, and that youth and women more likely to live in households with food insecurity.
And CTV reported on July 31, 2013 that “in 2012 the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the right to food visited Canada and had “extremely severe” concerns about the ability for people who rely on social assistance to maintain healthy diets.”

This is why food insecurity is recognized as a Social Determinant of Health (SDOH), why Access Alliance believes in a model of care and well-being that is based on SDOH, and why the newcomers cooking program is so important. It plays a small but vital role to ensure that many of our neighbours, to the best of their ability, do not become food insecure and are able to make healthy, affordable and home-cooked meals. And healthy neighbours make healthy neighbourhoods.

Back at the AGM, everyone clapped vigorously as the credits for the movie rolled across the screen. It was a wonderful first glimpse to the kind of organization that Access Alliance is, and what it champions. Luckily, I was elected to the Board that afternoon, and have had the privilege and honouur to serve on the Board ever since.

Access Alliance is celebrating 25 years of service to newcomer populations in Toronto.  Our journey has been a collaboration between people sharing the vision of a society in which all of its people, whether born into citizenry or newcomers to Canada, have equal access to health services.  Today, we commemorate 25 years of helping newcomers achieve health with dignity and in finding a sense of belonging within an open and safe community. In recognition of this milestone, Newcomer Health Matters will host a special series of blog posts, each entry published on the 25th day of every month up until the end of the year. See previous posts in this series.

Invisible Women: Are precarious jobs a sign of discriminatory treatment?

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Written by Yohani M., Volunteer Writer/Editor for Access Alliance

On March 20th, Access Alliance held the launch of a new report, “Like Wonder Women, Goddesses, and Robots,” which examines the social, occupational and labour market barriers that racialized immigrant women face in Canada. The report, a community-based research project, summarizes key findings and case studies of immigrant women stuck indefinitely in precarious employment. In the majority of cases, the participants were highly skilled, well qualified, and had left behind ambitious careers in their homelands for the promise of a better life. The reality—from the point of immigration—was far from it. Overworked and underpaid in temp, informal or contract work, and swept under the rug from public discourse, their stories bear likeness to one another in the grim consequences; social alienation, insomnia, depression. What the report identifies as the heart of the problem is the “institutionalization of racialized gendering of employment.” So what does this mean?

It means that immigrant women of ethnic minority groups have become widely associated with minimum wage low-skilled jobs. This in turn fuels the discriminatory assumption that they will readily absorb the rise of precarious employment, cushioning the rest of society by taking on work viewed as undesirable by racially dominant groups—babysitting, factory work, fast food services—work once associated with high-schoolers saving up for college has become an unquestioned and normalized view of racialized immigrant women. Despite their rapid swell in the population—over 60 percent of all women in Canada are immigrants, and 3.2 million nation-wide—the consistent lack of voice in labour market issues and policy-making has contributed to marginalizing them. Compared to their male counterparts, who often shed responsibility when it comes to running a household and child-raising, women often struggle alone.

The participants in the report identified three key barriers to stable employment: non-recognition of foreign qualifications, race-based discrimination, and limited access to professional networks. With such powerful structural barriers, it would take major adjustments on a social, occupational and governmental level to correct the system. In an equitable society, a highly skilled, experienced and qualified immigrant would have equal opportunity in career advancement to a local, irrespective of gender, race, or the name printed at the fore of a résumé. Having made huge sacrifices in the migratory process, no person should be cheated out of their dreams, especially those with abilities beyond Wonder-woman, goddesses, and robots.

“A woman is the full circle. Within her is the power to create, nurture, and transform.” – Diane Mariechild
Follow this link for the key findings and to download the full report

More about the project: Job-Skills Mismatch Among Racialized Immigrant Women

Poverty and Employment Precarity in Southern Ontario (PEPSO)