Indian Immigrant Aid

By: Afroze Edwards

From: Polyphony Summer 1984 pp.195-198
© 1984 Multicultural History Society of Ontario

As with any new immigrant group, the East Indian community has had to endure its share of growing pains. In 1970 an unemployed East Indian immigrant, isolated from family back home and unable to make friends in his new environment, took his own life. News of this tragic incident shocked Toronto's Indian community. A meeting was held by several concerned community members to discuss ways in which such a tragedy could be averted in future. At the time many Indian organizations were in existence, but they were primarily cultural, social and religious in nature. Although they provided a familiar atmosphere linguistically and culturally, they were not adequately equipped to address the particular needs of and problems related to immigrant issues of concern.

Concrete steps had to be taken to alleviate some of the stress experienced by the newcomers. One of the primary issues was their initial unawareness of available resources and avenues of assistance. In a large number of instances, this problem was further complicated by language difficulties. Services needed to be provided in a number of major Indian languages. It was decided to form an organization which would cater specifically to the needs of the East Indian immigrant. In 1972 the Indian Immigrant Aid Services (IIAS) opened its doors as a community social service agency. Its mandate continues to be one of providing social services conducive to the adjustment and proper settlement of immigrants of East Indian origin, regardless of country of origin. Settlement services which are provided include orientation, information, resumé preparation, job search assistance and referral to appropriate mainstream agencies .

Among a number of problems being faced by the immigrants, the foremost is employment. While many East Indian immigrants are highly educated and professionally trained, their degrees are usually evaluated in Canada at levels far below those attained in India, and often years of professional involvement in the homeland are not recognized here. Many must take on menial jobs to make ends meet. The necessity of having to upgrade both professional skills and academic certification places added stress on an already difficult set of circumstances.

In many cases the wives are also affected and must seek employment to help the family out financially. While this factor may not be a problem in other ethnic groups, in the East Indian community it poses several difficulties. Traditionally the East Indian wife is accustomed to staying at home. Her chief responsibilities entail raising the children and maintaining the family's cultural, linguistic and religious framework. When she joins the work place environment, she is often confronted with an entirely different set of values. Although transformations in appearance, dress and demeanour may seem simple, associated psychological changes are more serious in nature. Newly acquired economic gains lead to independence in thought, attitude and behaviour. Her identity is no longer viewed as a mere extension of her husband's. This new situation creates a conflict, particularly when the husband is either unable or unwilling to accept this deviation from the traditional role he expects her to play.

Marriage breakdowns have begun to increase at an alarming rate. Requests for assistance at the Indian Immigrant Aid Services have almost doubled in the past five years resulting in an increased demand for marital counselling services. The organization has responded to this need in a number of ways. It has established self-help groups for women in various parts of Metro Toronto and participated in organising a Making Changes program to assist women in making a smooth transition from housewife to career woman. It has focused society's attention on issues of serious community concern by submitting a brief on wife abuse to Ontario legislative committees and by chairing workshops in the Conference on Racism, Sexism and Work: The Visible Minority Woman. It has also expanded its services to include an after-hours telephone "hot-line" for emergency situations, extended office hours once a week to provide greater accessibility to its services and additional marital, career and personal counselling.

Indian Immigrant Aid Services' recognition and support of women's issues also include future plans to set up a shelter for women of East Indian origin, as well as necessary day-care facilities. Available mainstream agencies cannot offer adequate services because of familiarity with East Indian languages, cultural differences and varying dietary habits dictated by religious beliefs . It is obvious that mainstream social agencies must implement necessary changes in personnel to permit them to adequately serve clientele of East Indian origin. To cite one example, the Metropolitan Toronto Police Force has already responded by establishing an Ethnic Relations Unit. Members include representatives from various ethnic groups, as well as officers who speak a number of East Indian languages. They often assist the Indian Immigrant Aid Services in matters ranging from family disputes to community affairs. Until such time as other organisations follow suit, it will be necessary to continue efforts to establish an effective community-based network.

The 1970s heralded in change in the pattern of immigration. Whereas the immigration flow of the sixties consisted primarily of independents, the seventies saw an increase in the dependent class. Daughters and sons, who had by now established themselves in their new environment, began to sponsor parents and grandparents. The result has been a sizeable influx of this older age group. Senior citizens have become an integral part of Toronto's East Indian community with their own particular needs. One of the major problems they face is that of loneliness. Although a large number live with their children, they are often on their own while both children are at work. Their age is prohibitive to seeking employment to occupy their time, and as a result, they have no alternative but to rely on their children for financial and emotional support and social involvement. The Indian Immigrant Aid Services, in trying to overcome this problem, has formed senior citizens' groups. The latest club has been formed in the Flemingdon Park area. While it serves primarily as a social and recreational outlet, its main purpose is to provide this age group with an opportunity to meet with contemporaries in a familiar cultural and linguistic atmosphere. Issues pertaining to their needs are discussed, and they are encouraged to take responsibility for organising their own activities. Most important, perhaps, the clubs attempt to re-establish an enhanced self-image and a sense of belonging in the new environment.

Similar services are also available for youth. One of the major problems faced by this age group is relating to dual cultural environment- that of the home, on the one hand , and the outside world, on the other. While in the family home they are expected to pattern their lives according to the traditions and religious principles set forth by their parents, in their educational and work environment, however, they are confronted with an entirely different set of moral and social practices and codes of behaviour. Basic customs such as dating, mixing in a coeducational environment, working (particularly for girls) or choosing one's marriage partner, although considered a normal way of life here, are not the norm for East Indian society. The ensuing struggle between traditional-minded parents and progressively westernized youth is now occurring frequently in many households and is a major issue of concern for all parties involved. A film presently being produced by the Indian Immigrant Aid Services, entitled "Family in Transition", explores this real and difficult situation. Set in an interview format, it outlines the concerns and fears shared by parents and children alike and advocates the view that a healthy balance can be attained by selecting the best of each culture, moulding lifestyles accordingly.

As a community organiser, the Indian Immigrant Aid Services promotes inter and intracultural understanding. Numerous conferences and workshops are held on current topics of interest to community members. Issues, as well as possible solutions,are discussed. This spring a conference is being planned to discussed. This spring a conference is being planned to discuss the results of a Needs Assessment Study on the East Indian community. Results of the conference will enable the Indian Immigrant Aid Services to accurately gauge new areas of concern and to implement necessary procedures to address them. A new film entitled "Bridges", produced by IIAS volunteers, has also received wide acclaim and will be distributed on a nation-wide basis this spring. The film successfully illustrates contributions being made by East Indian immigrants assimilate into Canadian society. Also, a collection of short stories, which focuses on the experiences of East Indian immigrant youth, is soon to be published. Its objective is to foster and promote a greater understanding of and sensitivity to the struggles faced by the young as they adapt to their new environment.

The Indian Immigrant Aid Services has also attempted to effect political change. In the fall of 1983, it submitted a brief to the Special Parliamentary Committee on the Participation of Visible Minorities in Canadian Society, outlining positive ways to deal with racism. Many recommendations were submitted ranging from necessary changes in immigration procedures to the need for a fairer representation of ethnic minorities in Canadian media and advertising. It was well received and illustrates that participation in decision-making processes is vital to promote intercultural awareness and understanding. Towards this end, the Indian Immigrant Aid Services is represented on various government, community and mainstream agency committees. It also liaises with many other ethnic groups on immigrant related issues. On a social level, it sponsors the New Delhi Pavilion which has participated regularly for the past several years in Metro Caravan, celebrating the rich multicultural diversity of Toronto.

From provision of direct services to participation in community events, the Indian Immigrant Aid Services has, since its inception, tried to keep abreast of the ever changing needs of the community and, through its activities, maintain a sensitive and forward looking approach to meeting these needs. This has been made possible financially through grants received from all three levels of government and the United Way and ideologically through the support, interest and active participation of its volunteers, members, board, staff and community-all of whom continue to give generously of their time, talent and energy.

The community is proud to be a part of Toronto's sesquicentennial celebrations. It extends its congratulations to the City of Toronto as a place that has, through the years, encouraged the growth of all communities. The numerous contributions made by each ethnic group have made Toronto perhaps the most uniquely cosmopolitan city in the world. The East Indian community has also earned its own place of distinction. It has shared with Toronto its professional expertise in fields ranging from academia, medicine and law to engineering and business, from music and art to sports, fashion and cuisine. It takes pride in being part of the exciting changes in Toronto's make-up and, through its evolvement in the next 150 years, intends to make an even greater impact.

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