Once Upon a Newcomer to Canada: The “Before” and the “After”

By Miranda Saroli, Knowledge Mobilization & Social Action Coordinator, Access Alliance
Left: Mariam Spanos, newly arrived in Canada, getting information at Toronto Newcomer Day (2003) Photo credit: Toronto Star;  Right: Mariam, working with a client at Access Alliance (present day)

Mariam Spanos, a Settlement Worker at Access Alliance Multicultural Health & Community Services, recalls her migration story. Nearly two decades later, the memories are still vivid. After the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, the country had collapsed. Mariam’s family faced an unimaginable decision – her parents knew they had to seek a safe and stable future for their children, but the path ahead was full of unknowns. More importantly for Mariam, leaving Iraq would mean leaving her childhood behind. Having spent the first 18 years of her life in Baghdad, Mariam had strong emotional ties to the city and country.

As she recalls, “Arriving to Toronto…with very limited English skills was an extreme challenge especially when my heart and soul were in Baghdad and hopes to return were always present making the integration into a new country extremely difficult.”

There is no standard definition of a newcomer in Canada. Definitions vary from someone who arrived in the last three years, to someone who arrived a decade ago. Some consider exclusively landed immigrants, those who come willingly, seeking a fresh start and new opportunities. Other definitions include people with no legal immigration status, many of whom are forced to come, fleeing war and conflict. Some immigrants refuse to be labelled a ‘newcomer’, while others never feel established enough to drop that label. This loose demographic descriptor, often used by government and the service sector, conveniently groups together a large and tremendously diverse population. However, the experiences and reasons for coming to Canada are as unique as the individuals themselves.

Mariam and her family were connected with settlement services upon their arrival. Luckily, the entire experience was more than positive.

“Having access to settlement services provided a sense of security and lifted [a] tremendous level of stress navigating the entirely new and somehow complicated social, economic, educational and health care systems.”

Settlement workers helped Mariam apply for citizenship, prepared her on the path towards post-secondary education, shared available financial supports, and even oriented her to the taxation and electoral systems. These services supported her gradual and successful integration into Canadian society.

Access Alliance, a multiservice health organization that works within the ‘newcomer-serving sector’ in Toronto, offers these types of settlement services. Diverse hiring practices ensure staff reflect the populations served, and based on the last Employee Equity Survey in 2021, these practices appear to be working: 60% of staff reported to be born outside Canada.

Mariam credits the extremely beneficial experience with settlement services in guiding her own career path and leading her to Access Alliance.

“Pursuing Social Work and seeking to obtain the great sense of reward supporting every individual newcomer was not a coincidence. The genuine care and the great support provided by the Settlement Workers I met and the positive impact they had on my and my family’s lives inspired me to pursue Social Work to become a Settlement Worker myself.”

Left: Akm Alamgir (front row, far right) as a volunteer with Action for Neighbourhood Change, Scarborough (2011);      Right: Akm at his desk, Access Alliance, downtown Toronto (present day)

Dr. Akm Alamgir, Manager of Quality and Accountability Systems at Access Alliance, works in a completely different department from Mariam, but they share a similar motivation – to support newcomers in their integration to Canada.

He arrived from Bangladesh with his wife and teenaged son and daughter in 2010. Unlike Mariam, he was already well established in his career, having worked in several countries as a physician and clinical researcher, and in academia as a professor and department head of a medical college.

“I left Bangladesh at the height of my career, and after coming to Canada knew I wanted to make myself visible, share my knowledge, and build a secure future for my children.”

Although he did visit Access Alliance for settlement services, he did not find they met his needs. “The supports being offered were not ones I wanted or needed at that time, so [I] moved instead to settle myself and my family in a way that would help me achieve my goals.” This experience helped him come to the important realization that conventional settlement requires customization to respond to the diversity of needs among newcomers from a range of backgrounds, personal and professional.

“I started advocating a needs-addressed settlement advising for internationally trained professionals.”

Like many immigrants, Akm’s career journey in Canada began with more schooling and volunteering, despite his significant experience and credentials. He volunteered at organizations such as Action for Neighbourhood Change in Scarborough, the Heart & Stroke Foundation, and eventually, Access Alliance.

Today, Akm has followed through on his vision of real change for internationally trained professionals such as himself. He oversees the Immigrant Researchers Support Network (IRSN) at Access Alliance, an initiative that supports internationally educated immigrants from a range of professional backgrounds to find meaningful employment through mentoring, networking, and capacity building. He also drives research in the area of labour market discrimination. Recognizing that change is also needed at the policy level, he also continues to help bridge the gap between immigrant physicians and the Canadian healthcare system by remaining an active member of the advocacy group Internationally Trained Physicians of Ontario.

Left: Maha (left) receiving the June Callwood Outstanding Achievement Award for Voluntarism, Queen’s Park, Toronto (2018); Right: Maha (middle bike) with her Hijabs and Helmets program participants, Scarborough (present day)

Maha Mohamed, who has worked in several positions at Access Alliance and now as a full-time Settlement Worker, also began her immigration journey with volunteering. Maha arrived to Canada from Egypt with her family in 2015. She describes having felt uncertain and anxious about integrating socially and professionally as a new immigrant:

“…the entire process of settling in is no small feat, no matter how well you think you researched and prepared in advance. It’s never the same on the ground.”

Despite her own challenges, Maha felt drawn to the notion of volunteering by a desire to help the newly arrived Syrian refugees who coincided with her own arrival. But it wasn’t until a chance encounter helping a Syrian family struggling to communicate with a receptionist in a dental clinic, that Maha really knew that she wanted to seriously pursue a career in settlement.

“After helping them I felt happy, alive, and felt like I was on cloud 9. And this was the turning point, where I was sure that I was destined to help Syrian refugees and newcomers.”

Maha first volunteered with COSTI, a settlement organization, accompanying families to Service Canada, Service Ontario, banks, and doctor’s appointments. Before long, she got trained by Access Alliance Language Services and became an accredited interpreter. Later, she gained employment as a Peer Outreach Worker at Access Alliance. Today, in addition to offering one-to-one settlement services, Maha also runs programs such as citizenship classes and Hijabs & Helmets, a program aimed to teach and encourage Muslim women to ride bicycles. She is now able to help and support newcomers daily, by building their capacity to integrate into Canada.

The three staff featured here have one thing in common: a motivation and drive derived from their lived experience to help newcomers integrate and lead healthy lives.

As Toronto Newcomer Day (May 25) approaches, the Access Alliance Settlement Team prepares to take part, setting up a booth downtown in Nathan Phillips Square to welcome newcomers to Toronto and offering information on programs and services. This annual event offers an opportunity to celebrate the contribution of newcomers and highlight the importance of the settlement service sector.

When asked what message they would want to share with others about the experience of being a newcomer, each offered the following remarks:

Maha: The advice I would like to give to newcomers is to stay positive, hopeful, optimistic, and try to be involved in the community through volunteering with different professional associations to build your network and find a job. It is extremely important to learn from each experience we encounter, adapt to the new culture while maintaining your own – that will help you in ensuring your success in Canada.

Akm: I found much value in learning from the community, and learning from real people. I would say to a newcomer, if you meet a negative person, who complains about life in Canada, the next day try to meet five positive people. Ask yourself, “What makes them positive?”

Mariam: Newcomers come with their unique histories, stories, struggles, hopes, ambitions, capacities, abilities, and limitations therefore successful integration does not necessarily happen at the same pace or with the same amount of support; hence generalization and judgments are not accepted! Integration into a new society is difficult and could be painful therefore understanding, acceptance, encouragement, and support from Canadians and the outstanding newcomer serving organizations like Access Alliance is a key for a successful and smoother integration of individual newcomers. 

To learn more about the services and initiatives referenced in this article, please check the following links:

Access Alliance Settlement Services

Access Alliance Community-Based Research