New Pioneer awards laud immigrant achievement

By RON FANFAIR

As a government-sponsored refugee who fled war-torn Eritrea and neighbouring Sudan, Jamila Aman has experienced hardships and challenges and is fully equipped to help immigrants, especially those from northeast Africa, integrate into Canadian society.

In fact, this has been mostly her life’s work since she and her sister came to this country 24 years ago in search of a better and more stable existence. She has worked tirelessly to facilitate their smooth transition by lobbying politicians and funders and spearheading the development of meaningful programs and services for new immigrants.

Last week, Aman and six other immigrants and refugees were honoured with New Pioneer awards at the 17th annual Skills for Change event at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel.

“To be recognized and given an award for something that I truly enjoy is a bonus,” said Aman who is the executive director of Northwood Neighbourhood Services. “Working daily with refugees and immigrants is a privilege and helping to make a difference in their lives is an award in itself.”

Fleeing her native Eritrea in the1980s at the height of former president Mengistu Haile Mariam’s tempestuous reign that left the country in economic ruin and on the verge of political disintegration, Aman spent seven years in Sudan before coming to Canada in 1984.

After completing her last year of high school in London, Ontario, she moved to Toronto and found employment with the Learning Enrichment Foundation which initiates programs that reflects the needs of the mostly immigrant population it serves.

Committed to furthering her education to advance and confront new challenges in her field, Aman obtained a degree in business administration with a specialty in general management and public administration and completed settlement counseling and English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher certification programs at George Brown College. She also graduated from the Schulich School of Business Executive Director’s Institute and is pursuing a Masters degree in marketing at York University.

“When I came to Canada in 1984, I never thought that I would be receiving an award for the work I am currently doing,” she said. “It’s sort of funny because I got into social work by accident and there was a brief period when I was in the import/export business with an office downtown and an administrative assistant. That business was doing well, but I was not fulfilled. Working with immigrants is my calling and where I know I can make the most impact. This is what I enjoy doing.”

While it took Aman almost a quarter of a century to join the distinguished list of immigrants and refugees bestowed with New Pioneer awards, Sierra Leone child war victim Mariatu Kamara has achieved the honour just six years after arriving in Canada.

In 1998, Kamara was on her way to a neighbourhood village when she was attacked and tortured by rebel soldiers, the majority of them her age. Both of her arms were chopped off and she became pregnant after being raped by a villager. The infant died at 10 months old.

Separated from her family, Kamara spent the next four years living in a refugee camp and roaming the streets of Freetown begging for money to survive until she was rescued by a Canadian sponsor from Owen Sound who brought Kamara to Canada in 2002 and left her in the care of Abou Nabe and his wife Kadi, prominent members of the Sierra Leone community in the Greater Toronto Area.

“Mariatu has come a long way in a very short period,” Kadi reflected. “When she came here, her priorities were to learn English and write. She has achieved those objectives and more. We are very proud of her.”

Last November, Kamara launched a book – The Bite of the Mango – that tells the story of her brutal attack, its aftermath and her eventual arrival in Toronto. Award-winning journalist, Susan McClelland, authored the book.

Kamara graduated from Pickering High School and enrolled in the tourism and travel service management program at George Brown College. She, however, soon switched to the assaulted women’s and children’s counselor/advocate program that provides students with a feminist analysis of the social, political and counseling issues related to violence against women and children.

Kamara, who is the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund special representative for children in armed conflict, returned to Sierra Leone last year for the first time since she left in 2002.

Like Kamara, Ugandan-born King Achilla Orru Apaa-Idomo has not allowed challenges to deter him from becoming a productive citizen. Blind since the age of six, Apaa-Idomo came to Canada in 1989, after spending four years in a Kenyan refugee camp, and graduated five years later from Dalhousie University’s international development program.

Despite his heavy workload in university, he started a band – Baana Afrique – in his sophomore year. The musical outfit has performed at the Roy Thompson Hall, the CBC’s Glen Gould Studio, Harbourfront and at the international youth celebrations for the Papal visit in 2003. In January 2008, he was featured as the soloist of the year with the Royal Dutch Wind Ensemble at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw that’s considered one of the world’s finest concert halls.

The other New Pioneer award winners were Hadi Mahabadi, Pedro Vargas-Zamora and husband and wife Vijay and Neena Kanwar.

Ontario’s Lieutenant Governor, David Onley, congratulated the award winners and thanked them for choosing Canada as their new home. He also reminded the audience that his grandfather was among the nearly 13 million immigrants who have come to Canada in the last century.

“Unless you have the privilege of being one of the members of Canada’s First Nations, we are all immigrants or descendants of immigrants,” he said. “I applaud you for the courage, fortitude and bravery you have shown. You have all added immeasurably to our country.”

Founded in 1982, Skills for Change provides learning and training opportunities for immigrants and refugees and works with employers to promote workplace diversity through mentorship, recruitment and professional development initiatives.

The non-profit organization has presented 109 New Pioneer awards over the last 17 years.

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