The Evolution of the Immigrant Experience In Kitchener-Waterloo

In 2009, the twin cities lead the country in hate crime. Kitchener-Waterloo was  sitting at 17.9 hate fuelled offences per 100,000 people, a number that had tripled from 2008. While we are still sitting above the Canadian average (5.6/100,000 to 3.9/100,000) our ranking has dropped to fourth in the country. However, the rate of crime fuelled primarily by race, ethnicity and religious differences has long been a deterring factor regarding the addition of new comers to Kitchener-Waterloo. The immigration law firm Immigroup ranked KW the fourth worst city to move to in 2010, targeting the city’s high hate crime rate as the number one factor.

However, this June MoneySense ranked Waterloo fourth on the scale of “Canada’s Best Places for Immigrants 2015”. MoneySense contributor Mark Brown explains the city as having low unemployment (5.0%), a reasonable immigrant population (24.6%) and relatively low rent for a one bedroom apartment ($1024/month). A more detailed look at Waterloo’s statistics shows other positive factors, such as a generally high income,  a strong recreation, sports and arts culture in the city and relative ease of commute via bike, transit and walking. In terms of the overall ranking of the best cities in which to live, Waterloo came in at fourteen, a dramatic change from it’s forty third place spot last year.

Although Kitchener did not make the top 10 on any scale, Waterloo’s twin city also made significant gains in, from 63 place to 40th on the overall ranking. The City of Kitchener has made significant progress in unemployment, healthcare access and tax rates but still falls behind  Waterloo in  arts and recreational programs, average household income, and non-car transit. With the inevitable growing together of the two cities, one can only imagine that the two will soon be basically equivalent in the near future, especially as the University of Waterloo and Google bring the technological sector currently stationed Waterloo to the Kitchener downtown.

The change in Waterloo’s immigrant culture is indeed an optimistic change and something to celebrate. But it still begs the question of what happened to the city. What caused this massive change from one of the very worst locations for new immigrants to singing the praises of KW? Specifically in the past five years there must have been a massive change in the way the city approaches immigration and supports our newcomers.

Most immigrants agree, life is pretty good here. James and Lauren, immigrants from Northern China who have also lived in the United Kingdom list Waterloo as their “true home” of 15 years. With the quiet neighbourhoods and high education level, they have found a space that they feel welcomed and comfortable. Comparing their 15 years in Canada to the time they have spent in the UK, Canada offers more stability in the immigration program rather then the British work Visa, but also offers a more inclusive work environment. While studying in the UK, Lauren and James had few issues, other then the large size of Manchester. However, when attempting to enter the work force, they were forced into the last rung of the social ladder. The class system’s reach means immigrants in the third round of hiring, leaving very few to no jobs, especially for someone who is highly educated. Much of the couples decision to move was based on the equal opportunities the Canadian job market provided, as well as the slowed down pace and the culture of “more kindness” that Kitchener-Waterloo provides.

James and Lauren recount their experience, it becomes apparent their move was fairly smooth, but not without any road blocks. Language learning has been an on going process, one James says he will be working on for life. They are also big supporters of speaking openly about the immigrant experience. According to the couple, we do a fairly good job of being aware of others. We tend to share many of the same values and are able to be sensitive of those who have struggled. However, there is still some room for improvement. James made comment about the stereotypical complaint about the smell of traditional ethic food, specifically Indian or Chinese. “Everyone smells! Every thing smells,” he explains “even garbage”. Both Lauren and James have experienced the prejudiced idea that foreign workers are ‘taking our jobs’ as well. James again has a perfect response, as he explains that immigrants often have a higher level of education and are simply more qualified, otherwise “the government doesn’t take us in”.

Both James and Lauren see a change in the way the city is reacting to it’s diversity. With the gradual progression, often spurred by the University of Waterloo and the adaptive culture of the tech industry, the couple is happy to see more acceptance and diversity, as well as a Chinese population in Waterloo.

In contrast, Joyce and Graham Gladwell are another couple who have immigrated from the UK. However, Joyce is a native Jamaican who travelled to England to study. Her experience as a student in the UK was stellar, she recounts. It was only afterwords, when she decided to stay and marry Graham that English culture treated her with anything less then the utmost respect. Eventually the couple got fed up with the rigid social structure in England and moved with their three boys to Elmira. Graham, a mathematics professor at the University of Waterloo, recounts that even at the time of their move in 1969, the math department under the School of Engineering was quite diverse, with academics spanning all over Europe, India and Southern Asia.

Elmira however, as not so diverse. Luckily, the bonds the family had made though the International Christian Fellowship made their transition much easier, as well as Joyce’s memoir, Brown Face, Big Master. The small community was introduced to the book even before the Gladwell family’s arrival, making Joyce into quite the celebrity. Once she remembers asking the boys if they had any trouble in school, if anyone every bullied them on account of their biracial background. The response was an energetic; “No Mommy, you’re famous!”

In addition to the welcoming community the Gladwell’s found in Waterloo Region, they quickly found ways to get involved that were not focused on their racial and ethnic backgrounds, refusing to isolate themselves. Joyce returned to school to become a psychotherapist and helped found Elmira’s mental healthy centre, now the Joyce Gladwell Centre. Both she and Graham continued to be involved in the church as well as the social circles around the University. Both agree the culture of the University helped protect them, as those associated with it tended to be more openminded and considerate, as well as the merit based system that it helped provide.

For younger generations, stories are much different. Saba Ouji is now a student at the University of Waterloo, but she moved to Waterloo in 2008 from Tehran, Iran. Her mother, a computer scientist, wanted to provide a future for her children where they were not burdened by the same system that she struggled with. Saba and her brother were informed they were leaving for Canada, but were allowed to pick the city. After touring Kitchener-Waterloo, Toronto, Calgary and others, Waterloo was selected for it’s smaller population, quieter location and the prestige of the University of Waterloo.

The language barrier was the biggest problem leaving Saba, an Iranian social butterfly, to feel completely cut off from everyone around her. She spent a lot of time alone, not even really interacting with her family much. The transition was much easier on her brother, who had always been more introverted, as well as in possession of stronger English skills.  Saba tried to adopt the “learn as you go, no effort” means of picking up English, for her first four years of high school, but most of her language skills came from English TV. Only in her extra year of high school did she finally come to terms with where she was. At this point an incredibly influential teacher pushed her to interact with other students, helped with assignments and provided support that Saba wasn’t getting from friends. WCI’s Lynn Schultz was the “mom of all the newcomers” and helped all those who were new to Canada find a place with in the school community. Saba was soon volunteering for all kinda of school events, working and found herself as a recipient of the Lincoln Alexander M award, for helping to abolish racial discrimination within WCI.

Saba’s struggle fitting in still inspires her to keep working to help others, she’s now part of the Iranian students association at UW, as well as seeking to help others as much as she can. She speaks to the tendency of newcomers to clump with in their own cultures, saying that “new comers don’t want to stick together, but they feel to isolated to reach out”. Her own major regret was not taking the first step, simply because no one else was; her isolation was more a product of her self perception then the actions of others.

To Saba, the best thing Kitchener-Waterloo can do for it’s immigrant population is to continue to reach out. Those who have been through the experience of uprooting their entire lives have an immediate understanding of what others have gone through. Those of us who have not will never truly understand the difficulties and struggle to assimilate to a new society while still trying to hold on to a cultural background. But we can do so much more to try.

Ámbar Hernández, a 21 year old native of Santiago, Chile, has had a very different experience upon making the move up to Kitchener. She can remember being called out from being different from the very first time she even visited Kitchener. As a young girl who spoke very little English, she can remember being at a swimming pool in the city and verbally harassed by other children, simply for looking different and being unable to speak the language. Even when volunteering for various festivals, patrons will refuse to give donations, and telling her to “go back to where you came from”. But the most disturbing incident was only a few years ago. While at her Aunt’s for a farewell dinner for her grandpa and 8 year old cousin, who were returning to Chile the next day, a Caucasian woman broke into the house and made her way to the back patio. She walked up to the dinner table, despite questioning by the entire of family of who she was and what she was doing, and proceeded to headlock the 8 year old girl. After finally being pulled off of the girl and the children escorted inside, the intruder let loose on terrible racist slurs and accusations, including telling the Chilean family “your kind disgusts me” and accusations that they were running an “illegal cafeteria” in their home. The police didn’t believe the story at first, the entire ordeal seemed so far fetched. To this day, it’s unknown how the women knew the family was Latin American, unless she was somehow targeting them. Ámbar still questions the events; the woman got off with nothing more then a restraining order against her. While explaining the outcome Ámbar questions the resolution; “what would have happened if that was a Latina walking into some white persons house like that?”

Ámbar’s experience hasn’t been all bad. She’s found a great community through Neruda Arts, a world music presenter and organizer of musical, dramatic, literary, visual and dance based programs devoted to community building and multiculturalism. Even her time in middle and high school in Kitchener were full of open minded people who celebrated diversity. “I can see a bit of a change”, she says as she haven’t seen as much negativity lately. It’s also getting easier now. There are so many programs to connect new comers to important services, as well as a greater cultural shift to better understanding. However, we still have a ways to go. We still need to work to show more stories of those who have left everything behind. The common media needs more then just tragic, come from nothing, American dream achieved stories. We need to show representations of all kinds of people with all kinds of backgrounds.


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