The roles we play are key to our sense of identity and understanding of our place in the world. Each one of us assumes a variety of roles, be it “doctor”, “mother”, “friend”, or “#1 softball coach”. When considered as a whole these roles are what make us unique. But what happens when all of a sudden, for reasons beyond our control, these roles are taken away and we have to start over? What remains and how do we find our footing in a brave new world that is full of possibilities–good and bad. This is the issue that Mariam* contended with when war forced her to flee her homeland.
In her home country, Mariam had a firm sense of identity and purpose; she contributed to society through her work, committees, marriage, and children. “In all these roles, business and private life, I felt important and well respected,” says Mariam. “People would ask me for help and advice and this made me feel a valuable part of the society.” After fleeing the war and moving in with her children in Canada, Mariam began to feel like a burden.
Limited knowledge of the English language and Canadian customs made the world a small place for Mariam. “Suddenly, my whole world felt as small as a 2-bedroom apartment,” says Mariam, who found herself shying away from even the smallest of tasks, such as opening the door to greet a neighbour.
Eventually, Mariam’s son connected her to a broker with the Multicultural Health Brokers Cooperative (MCHB) who spoke the same language as Mariam and her family. This connection flung open the door to reveal a bigger, brighter world residing just outside Mariam’s son’s apartment. The broker helped Mariam connect to activities, government benefits, and resources Mariam needed to stake out her new place in Canada.
As Mariam’s grandkids grew bigger and space in the apartment became more limited, Mariam mustered up the courage to move into her own place–an apartment building for seniors. Once in her new building, Mariam wanted to be able to better navigate her community and help others do so as well. Mariam took this idea to her MCHB broker, who suggested she ask residents of her building, many of whom were newcomers to Canada, what would be most helpful. Mariam drafted flyers to slip under her neighbours’ doors and soon received responses indicating interest in attending English classes.
Mariam, with the help of a devoted teacher, began coordinating a senior-friendly English class for a group of 35 seniors who hailed from all around the world. The class became so popular that it started drawing new students who lived outside of Mariam’s building. Many seniors in the group spoke the same language and were also able to help one another learn using a shared vocabulary. Group members appreciated the slower pace of the class and being able to bond over shared experiences.
As the English class flourished, Mariam’s entrepreneurial mind turned to other initiatives to connect her fellow residents, including a collective kitchen for residents to make meals together, socialize, and save money at the same time. Mariam and her friends enjoyed whipping up batches of hearty home-cooked meals while sharing tried and true recipes from their home countries and divulging their best kept culinary secrets.
Not satisfied with stopping there, Mariam also worked one-on-one with the other building residents to connect them with the community including sharing knowledge about how to use an ATM, take public transportation, go grocery shopping, and set-up appointments.
Once lost, Mariam has found an identity in Canada through giving back and helping her community flourish. “To me, happiness means giving and not receiving”, says Mariam.
Mariam’s story shows that anyone can be a community connector, and making a difference doesn’t need to be complicated. We all benefit from the experiences and perspectives of our city’s seniors when they have opportunities to share. Edmonton is better off because of Mariam’s significant contributions that have helped other seniors get involved in their community.