Newcomers: Reaching Across the Years

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By Teenaz Javat
Picture by Daraious Billimoria

It was the winter of 1967 when Meher Panthaky, a 23-year-old bride joined her husband Jal in Montreal, Quebec. “Oh gosh!” she says, 43 years later sitting by the fire place at her Mississauga home, “Nobody in Mumbai ever told me how cold it would be in Montreal.”

Having married Jal Panthaky in Mumbai, India in the fall of 1967, Meher, a double-graduate in Liberal Arts and Law from the University of Bombay had no idea what she was getting into. Those were the days before the internet was even invented, so potential immigrants had to rely only on word-of-mouth and the rare article about Canada in the local media, to find out more about the country they would soon call home.

“My only information on Canada was from my Grade 10 geography class. After that, I relied on my husband Jal to tell me everything,” says Meher. And Jal, on his part, told her everything except how cold it was going to be in Montreal!

Four children later and having retired from successful careers, Jal who just celebrated his 70th birthday and Meher who is four yours younger, have decided to spend their retirement years giving back to the community.

“We started our Canadian adventure in Montreal and moved to Toronto in 1984 and are now retired in Mississauga. We feel we must give back to the country which embraced us and allowed us to live our dreams,” says a nostalgic Meher. “When I came to Quebec in 1967 aside from the political drama being played out, my concern was the inability to find a job and some chilli powder in Montreal. In fact, there were no Indian stores from where we could buy basic ingredients to cook Indian food.

“Now, the landscape has changed. Grocery chains like Loblaws, and No Frills may carry aisle after aisle of ethnic food, but newcomers are still struggling to get jobs. I often get the sense that the tensions and anxieties over relocating to a new country are still the same as they were a quarter century ago,” she adds.

The couple have found their calling in helping senior immigrants settle down in Canada. Meher uses her large network of contacts to reach out to those in need of services like connecting seniors to home care, calling up Wheel Trans on their behalf, taking them to doctor’s appointments for the annual physical check up etc. “I am their bridge to services.

Since I am from their age group and speak Hindi, Urdu and Gujarati in addition to English and a smattering of French, they do not hesitate to share with me their innermost fears.

This makes it easy for me to help them.” A deeply religious couple, Jal who is also a certified priest, volunteers his time in performing communions, initiation ceremonies, marriages and often times prays at funerals. The couple feel they have been blessed with great jobs, Jal retired in 2005 as Manager of Operations at the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) and Meher retired as Commercial Account Officer at the National Bank, so now it is their turn to return Canada the favour. “And what better way than community service to those marginalized in society,” they says.

Teach a man to fish
Twenty-three years ago Mona Adil Antia got into an argument with her mum Golcher Minocher Irani. In a fit of rage she did what some young adults would do, she ran away from home. Except in her case she travelled 12,519 km – the distance from Mumbai to Toronto.

“I was a 20-year-old living in a crowded tenement which supported a huge extended family. So in essence I was fed up. I decided to go where nobody would find me,” says Antia cuddling her golden retriever, stretched out before her in the Richmond Hill mansion she calls home. “In 1987 I had applied for a visitor’s visa to Canada, so my parents knew I was travelling here. But to run away without telling them… in hindsight, I would not want my sons to do it,” she adds.

Antia, a married mother of two teenage boys, works as a security analyst in the Investigation Department at an information technology firm in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). In the past 20 years she has sponsored and helped settle her entire extended family in the GTA.

She bought a sprawling house in Richmond Hill, north of Toronto, which at various points in time was home to her sister, brother, in-laws, nephews and nieces. “The best part is that now my parents have come here too. I feel forgiven for running away,” she says. Having settled her family, Antia felt the urge to continue helping newcomers who came to Canada. “Over the years I had collected so much information regarding settlement services that it would have been a total waste to let it go unused. If I know of anybody who needed help I’d immediately step in.

Whether it is hosting people in my home, making their resumes or connecting them to mentors and services I had it all stored on my hard drive ready to use.” Antia soon realised that she was fielding a number of requests for support from members of the south Asian community both before and after they arrived to Canada. So a group of like-minded young women decided to form the Helping Hands Committee (HHC).

The HHC provides newcomers access to services which they would not know about. According to its chair Diana Katgara who immigrated to Canada from the UAE, “We have used the internet as a tool to get the word out that there is help available. We have members on our committee who have day-time jobs as settlement workers, doctors, social workers.

They speak Gujarati, English, Farsi, Urdu and Hindi. “Although agencies like COSTI and the YWCA are in place to help newcomers, the Helping Hands Committee will advise and direct them to these agencies. We are their first point of contact,” adds Katgara who works as a Settlement Worker in the GTA.

In several cases Antia has used her annual leave toward taking newcomers to fill out bank forms, social insurance numbers (SIN), drivers licence exams, etc. She and other members of the HHC stand as guarantors when newcomers are faced with signing rental leases.

“Our committee will not offer jobs, but will equip newcomers with the right job search tools. If they need immigration advice we will direct them to the right people as we believe in the old Chinese proverb-Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,” adds Katgara.

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