- A three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee born in the Gaza Strip is trying to reconcile both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
- A Chilean-Canadian actress and playwright teaches local and international artists to cross cultural boundaries
- Canada's first Olympic wrestling champion came from a dirt poor village in Nigeria
A successful immigrant story offers reassurances at several different levels. First, for the host nation because it reminds its people that they live in a great country where diversity is highly appreciated and valued; second, for the successful immigrants themselves whom had been given a second chance; and third, for would-be immigrants waiting in line somewhere in a war-torn region, or in a refugee camp, because it proves that dreaming big means just that – envision your future and be the master of it. You.
The entries in our list of successful immigrants reveal something of the vast potential and energy foreigners bring to Canada. These people are my personal favorites because of their strong yet humble characters, the way they have overcome their unfortunate circumstances and have carried on without turning back. Onward and upward. I respect that.
If a Palestinian doctor writes a book whose title begins with I Shall Not Hate, most people would probably form a tentative idea of his life. And they'd be right to assume that it has involved suffering, personal tragedy and loss as well as a struggle for survival. But there's also humility, tireless devotion to nurturing and helping the wounded and the sick; and pure human empathy for everyone caught in the crossfire of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
On January 16, 2009, the Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip began and Abuelaish lost three of his daughters, aged 21, 15 and 13, all killed by Israeli shells. His 17-year-old niece died too. Another two of his children were wounded by rocket fire, but survived. All that happened only four months after Abuelaish lost his wife to an even fiercer enemy – cancer – and there was nothing he could do to help her.
Born and raised in Jabalia refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, Abuelaish has been crossing the line dividing Israelis and Palestinians for most of his life. He had treated patients on both sides because he felt his duty was to help everyone irrespective of their religious beliefs or nationality.
After the tragedy struck he didn't despair because, as the great Thomas Jefferson once said: “The earth belongs to the living”. So instead of drowning in hatred and thoughts of revenge, Abuelaish began his crusade for peace and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. He encouraged people in the region to start talking to each other and hoped that his daughters would be “the last sacrifice on the road to peace...”
In 2009, Dr. Abuelaish relocated to Canada with his remaining five children. He accepted a post as an associate professor at the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health where he currently teaches. After resettling in Canada, he wrote the aforementioned book that has been translated into 16 languages. Also, in memory of his daughters, he established the Daughters for Life Foundation whose sole purpose is to “empower women and girls of the Middle East through health and education”.
Because of his devotion to bringing peace to the war-ravaged region, Abuelaish has been nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize. His humanitarian work has been recognized with many international accolades. He also received the Mahatma Gandhi Peace Award of Canada, the Uncommon Courage Award from the Center for Ethnic Racial and Religious Understanding in New York as well as the Order of Ontario. This humble servant to the people has a simple philosophy: “I know that what I have lost, what was taken from me, will never come back. But as a physician and a Muslim of deep faith, I need to move forward to the light, motivated by the spirits of those I lost.”
Isabel Cisterna grew up in Chile, amid the driest desert in the world, feeling trapped and empty.
At 18, she decided to look for happiness elsewhere. She arrived in Canada some 21 years ago. All she wanted was to be an actress. The tiny hiccup? - she barely spoke English, and understood only what Star Trek's Data was saying because he was a robot. “An actor and storyteller being bound by a language is like an athlete being bound by a wheelchair," she likes to say.
Her strong desire to break into a highly competitive industry where even most native speakers would not stand a chance, only spurred her on. So Isabel “stubbornly” began to practice English by speaking with anyone and about anything as long as people had the patience to listen. She even talked to herself out loud and during these lengthy monologues she seemed to have found her true (artistic) voice.
For several years she worked at various jobs that “didn't feed her soul" but one day she mustered the courage to try something different. In 1998, she finally found a place to perform a one-woman play, one of the many she had written since coming to Canada. It was a reflection of those lonely monologues she performed at home not so long ago. “My Name is Isabel” became an instant success in the local arts community.
Today, those dog days filled with insightful monologues are over. But Isabel has since founded Neruda Productions, a non-profit organization that through music, drama, dance and visual arts gives a voice to the immigrant community and celebrates diversity. Says Isabel: “We use art as a vehicle for social change – for engagement.” The NGO brings together local and international artists who perform in front of a unique audience. Isabel says that it's a wonderful process of mutual learning. It is a chance to perform outside their own culture and to better understand the Canadian context. Neruda Productions works with 50 local and international artists and 60 volunteers. Artists can be also trained in marketing, presenting, networking and how to put together their portfolio. In addition, she oversees the staging of various festivals, workshops, concerts and more.
Some of the numerous recognitions for her work include the Kitchener-Waterloo Arts Awards for Mentor of the Year (twice) and the Waterloo Region Record's 40 under 40 Award for leadership in 2009.
Chances are, you know who he is because during the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games he won Canada's first gold medal for wrestling. Do you remember when he danced around the Canadian flag and kissed it - an image that has remained iconic?
He had been getting ready for that moment his entire life, which began in Eniwari, one of the poorest villages in Nigeria. Daniel had 20 siblings and literally had to wrestle for food with most of them. Obviously he had talent that was further developed the older he got. At 16, he won his first national competition.
In 1994, he competed in the Commonwealth Games in Victoria, BC, and sought asylum as a refugee. The rest... you know the cliché. There is one person in Daniel's life who brought about significant change – Maureen Matheny, the woman he refers to as “my surrogate” Canadian mother. With her encouragement, he went to Simon Fraser University and pursued a degree in criminology. He never stopped wrestling and competing during that time.
After the Olympic win he established the Daniel Igali Foundation and opened the first ever school in his native Nigerian village in 2006. Says Daniel: “I believe human beings should always reach out to others, especially those less fortunate. And some of us who have voices, we should harness them.''
Despite the success these new Canadians have found in their adopted country, it hasn't been without the help of local people who had believed in them. Ultimately, however, hard work and perseverance has brought them where they are today. Most importantly, all of them are trying to give back to the community and that's worth noting.