COVID-19 Stories: Hanen Nanaa, Campaigning for An Inclusive Canada

By: Cheryl

MCIS recently had the pleasure of interviewing Hanen Nanaa, a young, passionate individual dedicated to supporting newcomers in feeling welcomed and connected to their communities. Hanen is very special to MCIS as she was the youngest recipient to receive the Interpreter Training Scholarship in 2016. She has only been in Canada for four years and has already been accepted to Ryerson University, volunteered with many newcomers’ organizations, and began leading Books, Arts, and Music Collective (BAM), an initiative focused on encouraging community connection. She is a social force that cannot be stopped. We asked Hanen about her early experiences in Canada, the language barriers she has faced, her community, and how the pandemic is affecting her now.

About Arrival to Canada, First Winter, and Gratitude Towards Volunteers

I was born and raised in Aleppo, Syria. I spent most my life around family and friends. When the war broke out in 2011, my family and I were forced to flee to Turkey, seeking safety like other Syrians. I stayed in Turkey for five years, and then we decided to come to Canada in 2016. We landed in Toronto and I remember it was a cold February. I experienced snow on my first arrival. And winter is definitely my favourite season now. When I came [to Canada], I remember I lived in a hotel like many Syrians that came here. I stayed there for a month then moved to Scarborough.

My experience was similar to other newcomers. So, I faced a lot of new challenges while learning about the new system. I put a lot of effort and energy into learning English in one year and it was challenging, but I was very committed and wanted to learn more about my new home. There were a lot of agencies assisting us. I remember the one that was in charge of newcomers was COSTI.

I live in Scarborough, currently, with my parents, my grandmother, and my siblings. Like others, I have found that most services are based in downtown Toronto so it is easier for people the same age as myself to go and attend programs; it is harder for seniors and younger people to access these services.

I was the only child who spoke basic English, which means I was in charge of translating, emailing, documenting and simply being responsible for everything that took place in English. However, it taught me to be more resilient and stronger, and to have more passion to learn new things every day. I think what was really good as someone who moved to a completely different system, was that I had very a supportive community and volunteers. They taught me a lot about the system, the simple stuff such as how to take my mom to the hospital, and how to take the TTC. I definitely believe that having volunteers and community support is the basis of integration in Canada. I feel like volunteers were part of my experience in Canada and I am really thankful for them. They helped me to belong and they helped to make my life easier. There were a lot of organizations that were supporting us, but it was mostly volunteers working at no cost. They just wanted to give back and support newcomers in their first year.

About Language Barriers, Newcomer Youth, Information Seeking and My Pathway to Education

The challenges that I faced were not when interacting with my co-workers, friends, or neighbours, but rather at school. I was in grade 12 studying sciences, drama, and history, like all students. The system itself was different from where I used to study and I think this was a life-changing experience for me. I was placed in a grade 9 class. So, I was 18 at that time, and I was asked to start from scratch. It was a struggle to explain to my teachers that I understood English but I had never used it in a live system. I had no idea how to submit assignments, how to view grades online, or what online libraries were. Being placed in grade 9, I believe, was not a good solution because I wasn’t able to make friends. I don’t understand how they were expecting me to learn new skills. I think my teachers were seeing me and not hearing me.

So I dropped out of school and began to volunteer until I found a proper solution for my education. And here I met friends that were seeing the struggle in education for newcomers, so together we started the “Starter Kit Project.” The project was created to discuss various pathways and find solutions to problems faced by those wanting to attend post-secondary education, specific to newcomers needs. As well, I worked with other students across the country, mostly newcomers, on Newcomers Educational Support – Canada. It is a supportive Facebook group to share resources, scholarships, answer questions and simply to connect students across the country.

I think what helped me find resources is social media. I was googling stuff and there are a lot of Facebook groups that were very supportive. I also asked the volunteers. So like I mentioned before, the volunteers were a part of my life. Whenever I needed anything, I used to call them and ask them about the system: what should I do, where should I go? I feel volunteers were more helpful than agencies. My neighbours agreed as well. After experiencing that now, I volunteer to support newcomers in Canada. I wanted to give back because I think it is very important to have people who support you and answer you whenever you have questions. It is hard to trust people in your neighbourhood when you move to a new country with a new system.

After those experiences, I have learned so much about the education sector in Canada and figured out that there is adult school which I never learned about. I went to adult school; I made friends; I applied to university; I was accepted; and I worked in research, which was in English. I believe the problem was not my not knowing English, but was how the system delivered the information and how they treated me like a newcomer in this country. From my parents’ experience too, I also see that there is a gap in English as a Second Language (ESL) classes and how schools are delivering information. I definitely believe there should be more work done to ensure newcomers have equitable access to education. We all believe the key element to help them integrate with people in their community is to learn English, continue their education, and be part of developing Canada’s system. We all share the same vision of making our country a leader in the global community.

About Community Services, Digital Literacy and Giving Back

From my own experience, when I came to Canada, in my first year, I had more time to join groups. I remember I joined a group called NMC – Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations at University of Toronto (NMC-CESI – NMC or NMC – Facebook). NMC – CESI is a cultural exchange and support initiative. It’s founded by U of T students who share the same vision to support young newcomers to learn English, help them integrate, and make new friends. I really found it very helpful because I was not only able to improve my English, I was also making new friends and learning about different cultures and backgrounds. The sense of belonging this group gave me was important for me to feel welcome, safe, and at home. I think this group would be very beneficial if they targeted seniors and kids. I am currently helping the organizers with outreach; we are trying to engage more families and doing our best to support those in need. We all agree that seniors are not able to access these services.

I see a problem when it comes to agencies and community support. Most of the organizations are working to support newcomers (and there are many in Ontario), but the problem is most of these organizations are targeting one specific community; therefore, they are not always welcoming all newcomers. We need to work on delivering this information in an easy and accessible, and fair way to all newcomers.  A lot of organizations are supporting newcomers and advocating for their rights and education, learning English, and also being engaged. One such organization that I worked for last summer was the Syrian Canadian Foundation. I was coordinating one of their English programs called the English Tutoring at Home Program (if interested please send inquiries to The program was created for those who are unable to attend regular classes. Its target audiences are women, mothers, people with disabilities, seniors, or those who just cannot go to school for some reason. Newcomers were matched with tutors to learn English at home. They found it very helpful because they are not only learning English; they are also developing connections and learning about cultures, community, and different aspects of Canadian life. With the help of one of our volunteers, we were able to develop the program called “Cultural Connectors.” This program means a lot to me because it provides support for seniors, which has helped them improve their English. I felt honoured to work on such a program and to help those in need to make their lives easier. Due to the pandemic, the program switched to an online platform. The Syrian Canadian Foundation, when it comes to its name, appears to target Syrian Canadians but in reality, it targets all newcomers. I remember when I was managing the program, I wasn’t only matching Syrians with Canadians but I was matching all newcomers, and I loved it because we need to deliver those services to other people in need. In Canada, when it comes to newcomers, you do not have one specific group; you have a lot of people from different backgrounds and cultures.

When it comes to online, we definitely see a gap in technology with regards to newcomers. I see some organizations this year doing a better job in delivering information to seniors. What I found really interesting is that COVID-19 is reminding us to go back and support seniors, whether you are helping them do their groceries or helping them to learn English at home for newcomers, or even just connecting with them to help them feel welcomed and safe.

About Current Projects and What Keeps Me Busy

Last month I had a meeting with Scarborough leaders from different cultures and backgrounds and we all agreed that we see a gap in delivering the information to immigrants, newcomers, and refugees. So, I am starting to lead this project and what I did was started connecting with my SCF Team, Welcome Home TO and MCIS – to work on a short video highlighting important information related to COVID-19. For example, we need visual information like videos, subtitled and from trusted sources on how to use masks, physical distancing, travel restrictions, house tips, government support programs and how to apply. With the help of MCIS, we will better reach communities better. I am so excited about this collaboration because I do not see a lot of organizations working on visualizing critical access. We need to deliver this important information to help flatten the curve.

With BAM, the organization I started last year with my friends. It is a youth initiative that stands for Books, Art, and Music Collective. BAM aims to empower young people to get involved in civics through forms of art. To date, we have hosted multiple events, conferences, and campaigns. We worked on a lot of events in-person and most of them have had over 60 people. We did politics and art, climate change and art, and the first-ever mental health conference to bridge the gap between immigrants, refugees, and Indigenous people. We are also going to collaborate on campaigns. Our Ramadan campaign this up-coming month will encourage people to stay at home and practice reducing waste. Also, we are going to organize an open mic online event for June 2020. We are doing this because this upcoming month is Ramadan and I know some of the families will be fasting so they will not be able to join. I wanted to make the event accessible to everyone. The event will be for those who are interested in sharing their talents and performing for us, or those who are interested in watching, having fun and making new friends from home. I am focusing on BAM; I will be bringing more events.

I am also the incoming Executive Vice-President of the Politics and Governance Students’ Association at Ryerson, and I worked as an ambassador for the IRCNF OCASI Campaign, which stands for Immigrant and Refugees, Communities, Neighbours, Friends and Families to raise awareness to promote actions to end domestic violence. In particular, we are seeing higher cases of domestic violence and this is not only in Canada, but globally. I will be working on an event to provide resources and support to women during this difficult time. I was chosen, in 2019, to be one of the daughters of the vote to represent my future riding, and I am a part of WelcomeHomeTO.

For my paid work, I work multiple jobs, so I also work for Starbucks. Starbucks is considered an essential service. I will be back as an essential worker on May 17. I will be making coffees and connecting with people again, through the drive-through. I will be back to work, but most of my other jobs I am able to do from home. I have a lot of work to work on from home. I am mostly working from my backyard because the weather is getting better. I have a lot of energy. I am trying to be productive and I am always telling people it is fine if you are not productive. These are hard times, but try to connect with people and believe in yourself and keep working.

About Managing During the Pandemic and My Family Life

I believe living in Toronto has allowed me to learn about different cultures and communities and speak up for diversity and inclusion. I have had the privilege of meeting men and women much older and younger than myself who have taught me that we all NEED each other. No one can achieve greatness by themselves. Now I am more flexible. I believe this world is always changing and I need to accommodate the changes. This does not mean I do not have a set of values; it means that my values should be ones that can be shared by those with whom I share my space. Most people know what goodness means, and being good is always better than being selfish or destructive to those around me.

What I am doing these days? I am doing grocery shopping for my parents and supporting locals and seniors in my neighbourhood, and also studying and working from home. It has been almost a month and a half of quarantine and I acknowledge that the first month was tough for me, as an extrovert and a young person. I wasn’t productive, which is fine, but I felt overwhelmed with the news in terms of how the numbers were increasing, the death tolls, and how the media and the news were delivering the information about seniors; it was very intimidating.

As a person who lives with my parents and grandmother it was hard for me to see them stressed because of the news. I tried my best to tell them to express their feelings and to connect to friends and reminded them to be thankful for technology for connecting us. It is not only me seeing my parents and grandmother struggling because of the news. I also connected with friends and they are seeing the same problem. Our parents do not understand English or French, so it was hard for them to learn about what is going on.

It takes a lot of time to explain to our parents and be with them and support them during this difficult time. In response, I wanted to create something through BAM. So last Saturday, we hosted the first online event in response to COVID-19. I organized an online event for people who are feeling stressed, alone, and who want to connect and make friends. Last Saturday, I hosted “Sketch for the City Online Event” and we had over 23 participants sketching together a scene from Toronto at home. It was amazing to see people sketching, laughing, connecting, and encouraging each other to stay home. We made a poster of their sketching as a thank you letter to our city and to our essential frontline workers. We will be sending this letter this week.

I definitely acknowledge we are facing uncertain times and I strongly believe that refugees and newcomers, who do not speak fluent English or French, are struggling twice as much because the information is not delivered easily. It’s not only the government’s role. I believe it is all of us because we need to be very understanding, compassionate, and supportive of each other. It is important for us to remind our parents and our neighbours that we are not alone and we are in this together. I always tell my parents it is okay to feel anxious and stressed because of the pandemic, but we will fight this and go back to our routine faster when we all share the same vision to support vulnerable people. When I say vulnerable people, I do not just mean seniors and kids but also those who do not understand the language, such as newcomers and refugees. Refugees were considered vulnerable people this year because of the pandemic. I know they are struggling now because of the borders and all the support that the government is offering; we need to stick together and support each other.

It’s hard times but it isn’t impossible, we will get over this.

Interviewed by Alanna Quinn

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