When Sheila Appiah first landed on Canadian soil, she was alone, pregnant, and lost. Unfamiliar with the Canadian immigration system at the time, Sheila checked into a hotel with what little money she had – barely enough for three nights. As the clock ticked down on her hotel stay, Sheila mustered up the courage to consult the front desk, who suggested she return to her port of entry. Sheila obliged, but she did not know what to do upon returning to Pearson Airport.
In a turn of events, she found herself en route to “a place called Brampton,” where several newcomer settlement services were based. Without a working knowledge of her new city, however, Sheila did not get very far. Confused and defeated, she rested in the only place could think of: an outdoor public area, in the cold of her first Canadian winter, with nothing but sandals from her tropical home country on her feet.
Just as the abyss of her new predicament only seemed to deepen, a lady stopped by and asked Sheila whether she was okay. After listening to her story, the lady brought Sheila home and called Central Intake. Before long, Sheila was whisked away to a shelter. Of the shelter she recalls, “Everyone there was fighting or running away from something.”
As the bleak days at the shelter turned into even bleaker weeks, Sheila grew more and more fearful of her future – especially with a baby on the way. She lost her appetite. Without her realizing, Sheila fell into depression.
Eventually, Sheila was matched with a counselor. At first, their 30-minute sessions were filled with no talk, just tears. Yet Sheila realized that spending her sessions this way was not going to bear any fruit. Slowly but surely, she opened up about her struggles. She asked and learned about the services that were available for somebody in her situation. She came to terms with her depression – a condition highly stigmatized in her native land.
Today, the worst of Sheila’s wounds have healed, but she still bears the scars that remind her of the mental health battles that many newcomers to Canada face. Alongside her research partner and fellow immigrant Giselle Gàlvez, Sheila is now redefining her personal struggles in a community project to “help newcomers deal with depression and anxiety in the GTA.”
Sheila and Giselle are two participants of the Centre of Learning and Development’s (CL&D) Immigrant Women Integration Program (IWIP) who visited UTSC for a panel discussion and luncheon on Thursday, January 19. The IWIP is an intensive six-month program that provides immigrant women with the opportunity to develop skills and gain experience to thrive in their academic, professional, and personal lives. In this program, participants are required to conduct community-based participatory action research (CBPAR), of which Sheila’s and Giselle’s mental health-centric project is an example.
Giselle (standing) and Sheila (in white) at the IWIP x IDSD08 event on Thursday, January 19 (Photo: Joanna Bakyaita)
Three other CBPAR projects were presented during the January 19 panel, spanning the topics of affordable housing for newcomers in the GTA (presented by Fadeke), the availability of community support systems for newcomers in GTA Arab communities (presented by Raya), and the effects of autism in children on immigrant families (presented by Romy and Farkhondeh). For each of these projects, the IWIP participants will use a combination of traditional and CBPAR techniques – including surveys, interviews, storytelling, and arts-based methodologies – to gather and present data. Past IWIP-affiliated CBPAR projects have manifested into concrete policy and community changes throughout Toronto, and the latest cohort’s ongoing work points to the same promising results.
Romy (left) and Farkhondeh (right) presenting their CBPAR project on the effects of autism in children on immigrant families (Photo: Joanna Bakyaita)
UTSC’s very own IDSD08 students will have the opportunity to contribute to these women’s impactful projects, albeit indirectly. As part of this D-level IDS course, students will carry out collaborative research with CL&D staff across three primary areas: 1) digital literacy and equity, 2) sustainable management of the Tkaronto Knowledge for Change Hub (of which both the CL&D and the Knowledge Equity Lab are part), and 3) community outreach and marketing for programs like the IWIP.
The start of an exciting collaboration (Photo: Joanna Bakyaita)
As the panel discussion flowed into a hearty luncheon and conversations about breaking barriers continued as we broke bread, I was reminded that research should not be contained within the austere walls of academia’s ivory tower. Neither should it be constrained to ink on paper. Instead, research – CBPAR, in particular – should be driven by the interests of community members, focused on issues that directly impact them, and be realized into concrete changes.
Photos by IDSD08 student Joanna Bakyaita