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They share a homeland - and little else
Middle Eastern immigrants `a diversity within a diversity'
By Elaine Carey and Josh Brown
Toronto Star Staff Reporters
This article was published in the
Toronto Star on May 31, 1999
They don't fit anyone's definition of a community.

All that Greater Toronto's west Asians and Arabs share is an area of the world they call their homeland and a strong desire to be Canadian. They come from diverse backgrounds in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine and many other countries in the Middle East.

Even among the Arab community, numbered at about 80,000 in the 1996 census but estimated by its members to be well in excess of 120,000, ``we embody a diversity within our diversity,'' says Jehad Al-Iweiwi, executive director of the Canadian Arab Federation.

"We have a diversity of religion, and of features - white, black and everything in between. We are a microcosm of what Canada is, every sort of diversity you can think of.''

Members of the west Asian and Arab community can't even be identified by the area they choose to live in. They have spread out all over the GTA, although Arabs tend to concentrate more in Mississauga and Scarborough. The only identifiable Arab area is a strip of shops and restaurants along Lawrence Ave. E. between Warden and Victoria Park Aves.

"We are a very successful model of integration,'' says Al-Iweiwi. ``We are well spread out across the city.''

Iranians, who make up about two-thirds of the more than 60,000 west Asians in the GTA counted in the census, have settled largely in the Willowdale area of North York although they also are spread out and their only community centre closed in January because of federal funding cuts.

"We are still in a state of shock. We are trying to reorganize,'' says Nemat Golestani, 46, who worked at the centre helping new immigrants find jobs.

A survey for The Star by Goldfarb Consultants found many Arabs and west Asians are still working to establish themselves in the city. Many are having difficulty finding work and the majority haven't yet managed to buy a home.

Of the 131 west Asians and Arabs surveyed, one-third say they feel the opportunities to get ahead in Toronto are less than they had expected. Only four in 10 are very sure they made the right decision in coming to Canada.

But those are problems they share with many other newer immigrants, says Al-Iweiwi.

"Our concerns, aspirations and experiences are really not that different from other immigrants groups,'' he says.

The survey was part of a larger poll of 1,575 people and eight ethnic groups for The Star's Beyond 2000 project, a year-long study of Greater Toronto's growing ethnic and cultural mix.

The Star survey grouped west Asians and Arabs together because they are defined that way in the census and in federal employment equity programs.

Those programs were introduced in 1986, after the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms removed obstacles to the passage of such legislation. In 1996, the census asked people their race for the first time in 50 years so it could measure how the programs are working.

Dr. Sara Arab credits a strong and supportive family for helping her become qualified to work at the Hospital for Sick Children just seven years after coming here from Iran. She completed her master's degree at the University of Toronto in one year and won the prestigious Stuart Alan Hoffman Memorial Award for her patent of an anti-cancer drug. She is completing her medical genetics fellowship at Sick Kids and then hopes to be hired there full-time.

"I've loved Toronto since the beginning,'' she says. ``I found it friendly and a good environment for my kids.''

The transition wasn't always easy. Her daughter Ala, 15, and son Amir Mohamad, 13, missed their friends back home and had to learn English quickly. Her husband, Naser Roushan, an industrial engineer in Iran, couldn't find work in his field in Toronto and has opened a business selling Persian rugs.

Arab is Muslim and proudly wears a hijab, or head covering, at work without any problems

"Some people see women in hijabs and believe they can't think,'' she says. "I want to tell Muslim women that there are no limitations and that you don't have to change your dress to succeed.''

Arab says she is proof it's possible to balance a successful career and happy family life. While she admits her children are getting a little ``Canadianized,'' maintaining the family's Iranian culture is important, she says.

"It is good to know where your roots are, '' she says. "When you know where you are coming from there is a sense of richness and self-confidence.''

Culture and family are important to the west Asian and Arab community, the Star survey found. Two-thirds of those surveyed believe it is very important to retain their language and culture and pass it down to their children. Three-quarters get the greatest amount of satisfaction from their religious or spiritual life.

``I've been lucky,'' Arab says. ``I know there are a lot of over-qualified people out there with no jobs. It's heart-breaking. When you start a new life, you have to be supportive of each other and have faith.''

Heldez El Sewify is running out of faith. Since coming from Egypt seven years ago, she has applied for more than 1,000 jobs at hospitals across the country without success.

Hospital officials told her they weren't hiring foreign medical graduates. And when she offered to volunteer, she was told it was impossible.

``I just want someone to give me a chance,'' she says. ``Don't shut the door in my face.''

Thirty-eight per cent of the west Asian and Arabs surveyed were professionals in their native country but only 14 per cent are professionals here.

More than half earn less than $35,000, but that same proportion has arrived here in the '90s and is still settling in. The vast majority have at least some post-secondary education, reflecting the new, highly educated class of immigrants coming to Canada.

They were scientists, engineers in the oil fields, computer technocrats and business owners in their homelands ``but when they come to Canada they have to start from the beginning,'' says Hamid Fazel, 36, who came from Iran 13 years ago.

``A lot of them are in shock. They think this is the promised land, which I think it is. But you have to work hard to make it. We have a lot of successful Iranians in Canada.''

Fazel, who on the night of the second game of the Maple Leafs' semi-final hockey series answers the phone ``go Leafs, go'' and is wearing a Leafs jersey, says Toronto is definitely home now, although it was a little difficult in the beginning. He eventually went to community college here to get a degree as an electronic engineering technician before finding a job.

The newest members of the Arab community in Toronto are wealthy, well-educated Iraqis who came here because of the Persian Gulf War in 1990-91 and ``represent the best of the best of the Arab world,'' says Al-Iweiwi of the Arab federation.

``For those with money, substantial experience and credentials, not many are able to go through a smooth transition,'' he says. ``For them it's been difficult and a lot chose to go back.

``But I don't think one group is affected more than another. It affects all ethnic groups, especially those who have attained their qualifications and credentials outside Canada.''

`We do feel `Canadian non grata' no matter how Canadian we are.'

The reality of finding jobs and integrating in Canada is not explained well to prospective immigrants, he says. ``It's one of the fundamental issues that needs to be addressed. They come in with these false hopes and expectations and they wonder why they are facing this and it's because no one has told them.''

Many open their own businesses but the failure rate is high. ``That, too, needs to be addressed, as to why these opportunities and options are not working for everyone.'' Only a third of those surveyed feel there is discrimination against their community but among that group, more than half feel there is a great deal or quite a bit of discrimination. One-quarter say they have experienced discrimination and it was based equally on colour and religion.

Arabs in particular face ongoing stereotypes, ``although we're not ethnically visible and it's very difficult to say who's an Arab and who is not,'' says Al-Iweiwi.

``I think we're probably the last group that it's still acceptable to discriminate against,'' he says. ``It's not abhorrent or outrageous to hold some basic stereotypical views of the community.

``We do feel we are `Canadian non grata' no matter how Canadian we are. We are put into the position where we have to defend ourselves against this barrage of stereotypes and association with fundamentalism and terrorism.''

The gulf war was a reminder of how quickly those stereotypes resurface, he says.

```We have to prove that we are Canadians and our loyalty to this country is unquestionable. All these things tend to compound and put layers and layers of difficulties.''

Despite those difficulties, he says, ``I think we as a community are not doing too badly.

``We have a lot of individual success stories - people in banks, software, industry and private business. Arab Canadians are found in all parts of the economic sector.''

They come to Canada because it is largely a family-friendly society with world-class education for their children - one of the top priorities for Arab parents, he says.

Almost half of those surveyed believe life in Toronto will improve over the next two years. Two-thirds believe they will still be living in Toronto five years from now.

Banu Timucin, a 26-year-old chemist from Turkey, believes staying positive has helped her get through the hard times as she has searched for work for the past two years.

Despite a university degree in science and a year's experience as a chemist at a Turkish textile company, Timucin is working as a live-in nanny in Toronto.

She doesn't expect to get a job as a chemist right away. All she wants to do is get her foot through the door.

``Sometimes it's frustrating; but if I have to start all over again, I'm willing to do that,'' she says.

``I don't have any regrets. The life and opportunity are better for me and my future family. I try to be optimistic.''