Rizani has been a youth worker in our crisis shelter since 2011.
Every day, I walk in through our main doors not knowing what lies ahead; but I do know one thing for certain – I will learn something new today. I am astonished by the immense diversity that is represented by the many youth who access our services. Wouldn’t it be lovely to be whisked away to faraway lands filled with exotic flavours and rich cultures without having to spend a penny? I get to have this experience every day by just walking in through our front door. Sometimes the stories I hear are uplifting and instill a sense of hope. Other times, the stories shared are sad and often painful, but these are stories that need to be heard.
Books, movies or the media in general can never provide the knowledge and understanding of a culture that you receive from listening to the stories of a real person. I had heard about Bina, a young woman barely 17 years old who had fled Afghanistan and was seeking shelter with us. I felt I had a fairly strong grasp of the culture and strife in Afghanistan and I was intrigued to hear her story.
I often saw her sitting by herself with a loose shawl draped around her hair. She always had a welcoming smile on her face, but her eyes betrayed her as you could see the anguish she was carrying. I decided I would go and introduce myself. I tried to find a common ground that would aid in building a relationship. I knew we had two commonalities – we were both women and we both shared the same faith. At first, she appeared disconnected and would just smile and say very little. We had a language barrier, but non-verbal gestures are universal. I slowly started to get to know her and as she became comfortable in my presence, she would start to share more. We spoke about her family and the house she grew up in. Then, she started to talk about what life was really like in Afghanistan.
Bina lived in a culture rich with many traditions. She attended school when she was younger, but stated males and females were kept separate. I wondered what a culture shock it must have been for her to enter a society in which males and females who were unrelated could live and work together, and openly communicate with each other freely. We spoke about music, art and food. She shared that she lived in a society where one could not openly have fun. Music, dancing and laughter had to be kept hidden and behind closed doors. As we spoke about music, I decided to take her over to the computer and play songs off of Youtube that would help make her feel more at home. It was during this interaction that I realized that though her story was painful and had perhaps forced her to act older than her age – she was still just a teenager. She took over and played all these different songs. You could see her face light up as she excitedly told me about all these various Afghani artists.
A few months ago, I decided to take Bina to the library in an effort to connect her with potential resources like English speaking circles and to get her access to reading material in her language as well. She was so excited to receive a library card! As a newcomer to Canada, TPL issues a temporary library card for three months. She just informed me that she was going to get her library card renewed. I couldn’t believe it had been three months, and what a transformation has unfolded over just these few months!
During Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, Bina became an active participant in her Islamic community. I attended mosque with her and was introduced to community members she had met. Seeing her in this setting, I could see that she had gathered a sense of belonging and her confidence was starting to build. Another co-worker and I hosted an end of Ramadan celebration for our youth. We played Arabic music, served food and drew henna art designs. It was wonderful to see youth from different cultures and faiths come together and participate. We all had an amazing time!
One day, Bina returned from a community event and I’ll never forget her small, but touching, act of kindness. As she saw me leaving my shift, she asked me to come and share the traditional bread she had received from the event she had attended. She insisted on having me share her bread with her and did not want to take no for an answer. It touched my heart greatly to know that despite her horrific life circumstances and that she only possessed only a few belongings, she was willing to share with me. It was a humble and genuine gesture that helped teach me the resilience of the human spirit.
September arrived which meant Bina could finally start attending school. Her English had been steadily improving. I had observed her slowly immersing herself into Canadian culture. She was starting to show an interest in trying on westernized clothes to get ready for the Canadian winter.
I was heartened to hear that Bina wanted to talk about housing. She had done her research about Toronto Housing and pulled out a list of her “wants”. Written on the list was “two bedrooms, a living room, kitchen, two bathrooms—I want a big house!” Her list made me smile as it proved to me that she was starting to see a future here in Canada. I turned to her and said that this last part about wanting a “big house” will happen one day, Inshallah (God willing).
It is a profound thing for someone to share their story with you, their struggle, and their hopes and in turn, to be able to connect them with resources, help uplift their spirits and watch them grow. I feel truly fortunate to be able to see this beautiful young woman immerse herself in Canadian culture and see her strive towards independence and in the hope of a better future.