By RON FANFAIR
His story is similar to that of most immigrants. Terry Sawh left Guyana in 1976 with $24 in his pocket and a burning desire to succeed despite the obstacles he knew he would face.
He was just 18 years old at the time and about to start a fresh chapter in his life with a distant relative he met for the first time when he landed at Lester B. Pearson International Airport.
“By talking to family and friends, I gathered there were bigger and better opportunities here for me, so I decided to take the plunge,” said Sawh, who grew up in La Grange, a rural village on the West Bank of Demerara in Guyana and attended West Demerara Secondary School. “Culture shock, however, soon set in and I began to feel empty and lost in a big ocean.”
Instead of sinking, Sawh fought through the strong waves and pulled himself together.
He did a few television broadcasting courses and a volunteer stint at CityTV with the intention of becoming a professional broadcaster and returning to work either in Guyana or elsewhere in the Caribbean. When that did not work out, he did some odd tasks before landing a job with a downtown collection agency in December 1979.
After working with Dun & Bradstreet for five years, Sawh launched his own collection agency – The Debt Safe Corporation – in Toronto and Topnotch Employment Services a few years later that now employs eight full-time staff and manages nearly 300 contract staff, the majority of them Aboriginals and visible minorities.
Sawh chairs the Canadian Aboriginal and Minority Supplier Council’s Supplier Input committee and the Markham Softball League, serves as vice-president of the Lakshmi Mandir in Mississauga and is a member of several other organizations, including the Guyana Canada Chamber of Commerce, the Guyana Awards Council and the Leaside Lions Club.
Last week, Sawh joined Canada’s past and current governors-general, Adrienne Clarkson and Michaëlle Jean, respectively, former federal health minister, Ujjal Dosanjh, award-winning film director and screenwriter, Deepa Mehta and Mission, British Columbia mayor, James Atebe, as recipients of the first Top 25 Canadian Immigrant awards that seek to uncover and celebrate the untold stories and remarkable achievements of outstanding immigrants.
“As an immigrant to this country, I used to be amazed by the stories I heard of newcomers who faced huge barriers,” said Canadian Immigrant magazine founding publisher, Naeem “Nick” Noorani. “I also learned about the so-called transition penalty immigrants paid by taking jobs that were far beneath their skill set. I used to wonder if immigrants succeeded in this country at all.
“And in my quest to scope out successful immigrants, I found that there were many more and I wanted to tell their stories and inspire other newcomers. There are so many stories out there of perseverance and triumph.”
Canada’s Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, Jason Kenney, congratulated the award winners and Noorani, adding “there are very few outlets like yours that speak to all new Canadians regardless of their country of origin, faith or culture.
“You are doing what Canada does which is bring people together from different backgrounds and you are demonstrating the great success story of Canada’s model of pluralism…It’s so important for us to celebrate success stories. Tonight, we celebrate those people who come with the hope of building a brighter future for their children while contributing to this country.
“There are far too many who come from the top social and economic strata of their societies and sometimes from developing countries with their professional degrees and years of experience in their profession and find themselves all too often locked out of the cycle of prosperity and opportunity because of the challenges of foreign credential recognition.”
Kenney singled out Atebe, who came from Kenya with very little and has risen to become the mayor of the fastest growing community in British Columbia. Atebe was a roommate of Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the University of Calgary.
Other Top 25 Canadian Immigrants include Democratic Republic of Congo-born Body Ngoy, who works for the Liberal Party in the office of MP Mauril Belanger and Sierra Leone-born Dr. Francis Amara, who is an assistant professor of biochemistry and medical genetics at the University of Manitoba.
Launched in November 2008, the awards program garnered 350 nominations. Voting was then opened online for the public to select their favourites from among 75 nominations. Nearly 10,000 Canadians voted for the Top 25 from February to April this year.