Geographically far, emotionally close
UTM students share their defining experiences with their cultures.
Familiarity in an unknown place
Aia Jaber, Managing Editor
My feet drag slowly across the pavement, eagerly approaching a busy plot of land filled with pieces of my culture, language, and favourite foods. Eyes wide open, a gasp escaping my mouth, I run over to the street sign reading “Edgware Road.” To any pedestrians passing, I must appear silly—a girl standing in front of a street sign they ignorantly walk by every day on their daily commute. For me, I’ve waited my entire trip in England to see this very sign.
Shops and restaurants stand tall with Arabic writing across their windows. I stare at each store as I walk slowly down the long street—dreading the end of the alleyway, signalling it’s time to go home. All around me, I hear Arabic speech shared between families, friends, and shopkeepers. The interior of each building filled with cranberry red cushioned chairs and tiled walls—a staple in Iraq’s modernizing shopping scene. I am 5,711 kilometres away from Toronto and 5,210 kilometres from Baghdad, and yet, I feel at home.
The ability to feel closer to my relatives, to those whom I have not seen in over a decade, is emotional. The smell of a charcoal grill cooking skewers of chicken fills the night air, making my friends and I far hungrier than we already are. The ability to witness large groups of people who share my culture, traditions, and language is surreal. We have a large Arab population in Ontario, but London feels different, and I can’t tell you why.
Many ostracize the street—laughing at its creepy men and immigrant feel, but I love seeing details of my culture in the Western world. I’m filled with excitement as I stop to take a picture of a restaurant called “Masgouf”—its name a specialty grilled fish made throughout Iraq. The singular photo of the dimly lit, odorous restaurant I take with shaking hands encapsulates my longing to see my country. It is no wonder why ethnic groups flock to similar regions in Western countries desperately yearning for a place like home. There is comfort in what is familiar—even in an entirely new country.
Learning to live with survivor’s guilt
Shahed Ebesh, Contributor
I am a first-generation Syrian immigrant from the city of Damascus. The story of how I came to Canada is a lucky one. When I was four years old, we moved near Vancouver from Saudi Arabia, with plans of returning to Syria in 2009 when our apartment there would be complete. Right before our trip, civil unrest began to stir, and we made the life-saving decision to wait another year.
I’ve grown up carrying my Syrian heritage together with a state of permanent grief and survivor’s guilt. For my family, this manifested in stricter religious attitudes. Up until recently, I tried to distance myself from my heritage to avoid thoughts of the war. Now, I realize how my original attitude was the issue. My culture is not one of war; my culture is delicious foods like ma’loubeh and fetteh, and upbeat dances like dabke dances and belly dancing with women you cherish. I love learning new idioms in Arabic. I keep the memory of my country alive by discussing Syria in a positive light, as the jasmine-scented, cat-filled, bustling nation I remember.
I still carry that survivor’s guilt—until the war is over, I don’t think there will be any place to put it down. But with it, I carry pride in my identity as a Syrian woman.
The School of Dreams
Elizabeth Provost, Editor-in-Chief
My mother immigrated to Canada from Russia in 1999. I was born shortly after, in 2001. After my mother was handed my birth certificate, she began searching for places in Montréal where I could be exposed to Russian culture.
Once I was able to talk, walk, and know to dry my tears at the sound of a Russian ballad, my mother enrolled me in a Russian school. The school’s name translated to “The School of Dreams.” That, it really was.
The classes were part of an after-school program. We took Russian, literature, algebra, and physics—little children trained with the expectation of one day winning a Nobel Prize. None of us ever did, but the friendships we made have lasted a lifetime. After the heavy subjects, we were shipped off to the basement of the old church rented by the Russian women who ran the school. There, we would paint, put on plays, sing in choir, and learn to play the piano.
When I turned 10 years old, my mother and I moved to Ontario, leaving behind our warm and welcoming family of “The School of Dreams.” The sweet taste of Russia was gone.
It’s undeniable that the easiest connections are made with those who share our cultures. When I meet a Russian now, I hold onto that bond and quench my thirst for my language and my values, reminded of the late nights singing and dancing “Katyusha” in gold-embroidered traditional Russian costumes on the squeaky floors of the stage that made me who I am today.
I am a descendent of colonizers
Dalainey Gervais, Contributor
Growing up, I felt inner conflict when accepting my cultural identity. My family’s lineage extends to early French-Canadian settlers. While I am proud to say I am Francophone, I understand my ancestors’ implication in the colonization of this land. Although I don’t know their names or faces, it is easy to assume that my French-European ancestors sailed across the ocean and played a role in the whitewashing of this country.
Through my inner turmoil, I have realized that while it was not my own hands that caused a century of cultural and ethnic genocide, it is my responsibility to partake in reconciliACTION—a significant plan to take active steps towards reconciliation. I can embrace my family’s traditional Québécois dishes, folk dancing, and songs. I can enjoy our Christmas Réveillon traditions. But I also have to acknowledge my status as a descendant of colonizers.
Guyana, always close to heart
Kareena Kailass, Opinion Editor
Coming to Guyana as indentured workers under the reign of the British, the Indo-Caribbean diaspora was born. Creating a fusion of cultures between the varying diasporas in the nation, including the Afro-Caribbean diaspora and Amerindians, the unique culture of Guyana came about.
My parents, descendants of the Indo-Caribbean diaspora, always made sure my older sister and I were close to our Guyanese heritage and in touch with our culture. We were taught to pass on our cultural traditions throughout the generations, to learn the values and principles that they teach, and to be proud.
Bright colours and warm, good vibes are the best way to describe who and where I come from. My favourite part of my culture is the happy, uplifting spirit it spreads.
Carnival, or in Guyana, Mashramani, is one of the most well-known parts of the culture—aside from the food and music, of course. The Toronto Caribbean Carnival, or Caribana, is one of the biggest displays of our culture in Canada, meshed with the culture of various other Caribbean countries that share similar cultures.
At Caribana, our feel-good music blasts as parade participants display their bright, jewel-encrusted costumes, proudly showing off our culture. The warm scents of our food fill the air as vendors prepare authentic meals—a smell that always makes me feel at home.
The University of Toronto Mississauga—a shared space that is open and encouraging of our cultural displays—is home to many Guyanese and Caribbean students. Through this welcoming environment, we continue to keep our traditions alive.
What is happening, India?
Malavika Puri, Contributor
As a child, my friends and I would feast on Eid, celebrate Baisakhi, and play with colours together on Holi. India became home to people of many different religions because their right to religious freedom was respected and upheld. Today, people are being tortured in the streets and forced to chant “Jai Shri Ram” (“Glory to Lord Rama”). “Liberty of belief, faith and worship” has vanished; “Liberty of one faith, worship and hatred for others” is taking over.
Rani Lakshmi Bai taught me that we should speak up against injustice and fight for our freedom. Countless freedom fighters under her leadership laid down their lives in the first revolt for independence against the British in 1857. As a country established by fighting for its freedom against colonizers, we should honour the right to protest and fight against injustice—not encourage it. Yet, young activists are blinded with tear gas and maimed with steel pellets as they try to protest the government in Punjab and Delhi. “Liberty of thought and expression” is long forgotten, and “Oppression of thought and expression” is taking over.
India showed me that nobody is less or more—we are all capable of enacting change. We must encourage communities to be more accepting in a way that respects, honours, and protects all citizens. Yet, the only thing changing is the news headline, from violence to deaths. As the most significant democratic republic in the world, India should have an equal society. However, this is far from reality. Politicians have an excess of power to misuse. “Secular Democratic Republic” is transforming into “Totalitarian Religious Dictatorship.”
India taught me a lot. Now, it has to change and grow before it destroys its legacy. With the appropriate values already embedded in our culture, it’s time for India to remember what our previous leaders and activists fought for and taught us.
Granting myself the opportunity to discover my cultural identity
Maryam Patel, Contributor
Growing up, I didn’t see the importance of preserving my cultural identity. I narrowly believed that if you lived in the West, you’d automatically assimilate to that country’s expectations and dispose of your customs at the door.
For most of my life, I tried to conceal my ethnic identity because of unfair stereotypes and assumptions. I attended a predominantly Arab school where the only Desi people were of Pakistani descent. In anticipation of mockery and whispered remarks from my classmates, I recall feeling anxious when teachers would ask students where they were from on the first day of class. I remember kids putting stickers on their foreheads, making weird noises to imitate our music, asking if I was secretly Hindu, and telling me that India was a dump. I didn’t feel proud to be Indian. I was embarrassed. It seemed like the idea of an Indian Muslim was unheard of.
It wasn’t until the Covid-19 pandemic that I began accepting my culture. I’m still unsure of what exactly sparked the shift in my attitude toward my culture. Perhaps being at home, surrounded by my traditions and family, birthed the newfound sense of appreciation I felt. It could be all the Bollywood movies, learning to cook our cultural dishes, like tandoori chicken, or the long conversations I had with my aunts about our family’s heritage. As I learned more about my culture, I discovered a part of myself I had purposely buried, unaware of how much I missed it.
Now, I realize that my culture is beautiful. The vibrant colours of our exquisite foods and clothing are just the beginning. The importance of family and togetherness is one cultural aspect that, aside from the music and dance, I’ve admired a lot more in the past few years.
“Strength lies in differences, not in similarities,” once said American author Stephen Covey. Worthy of being cherished instead of mocked, expressed instead of hidden, and shared instead of buried, our differences—cultural or otherwise—make us special.