They came to Canada in search of a better life — and found it

The Tri-City News spoke to three well-known local community activists, who also happen to be immigrants, about their thoughts and feelings about their adopted country

They hail from countries as diverse as Iran, Zimbabwe and Serbia but one thing they have in common is a deep love of Canada.

On Friday, the Tri-City News had coffee with three local community activists, who also happen to be immigrants to Canada. What we learned is that there are many different ways to view this country and ways to Celebrate Canada Day, July 1.

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Here’s some of what Fred Soofi, Igor Bjelac and Trish Mandewo had to say.

TRISH MANDEWO

Country of origin, Zimbabwe

Years in Canada: 10

Where she’s celebrating Canada Day: Town Centre, Coquitlam, volunteering at the Multicultural Advisory Committee tent.

Trish Mandewo has been an activist in the community for many years, helping to raise the profile of entrepreneurial women through the Women’s Collaborative Hub. Mandewo has won numerous awards including 2017 RBC Top 25 Canadian Immigrant and is a recipient of Canada 150 Sesquicentennial pin for leadership and community service. She is also a Coquitlam councillor.

For Mandewo, Canada is a welcoming country and where she first felt at home after arriving in North America. She never felt as accepted in the U.S. as she does here and it was this sense of belonging that inspired her to run for Coquitlam council.

Trish
Trish Mandewo - File

“To put my name forward, I felt like I belonged and when I talk to other immigrants this idea of welcome resonates with them, they feel the same.”

She wants to ensure her daughter has the same appreciation of the country, and though Mandewo still has ties with Zimbabwe (her mother lives there and Mandewo sends money home), Canada is where Mandewo has set down roots.

“I made an effort to come here. I want to be 100% Canadian and to make it the best place, and make it welcoming to others, and one of the ways I can do that is through public service.”

As with any newcomer, Mandewo had expectations coming to Canada and while she has fulfilled many of her dreams she still wishes that newcomers with professional credentials could obtain equivalent jobs in Canada more easily, or at least be forewarned about the challenges.

Still, she believes Canada is a country of opportunity and will be celebrating on July 1 wearing her favourite colour: red.

FRED SOOFI

Country of origin, Iran

Years in Canada: 46

Where he’s celebrating Canada Day: Town Centre Park, Coquitlam, at the Tri-City Iranian booth, and at Port Moody’s Golden Spike Days.

Fred Soofi is a well-recognized figure in the Tri-Cities as a restaurant owner, member of Amnesty International, and promoter of several local causes, such as the preservation of local heritage through the saving of heritage homes, the Port Moody Seniors Friendship Club, and the Vancouver Intercultural Orchestra to name a few. He was also the 2016 RBC Top 25 Canadian Immigrant.

Soofi
Fred Soofi - File

It’s legend in the Tri-Cities how Soofi arrived in Canada as a young man not speaking a word of English. He started out as a dishwasher and became a successful restaurant owner.

Now, though, if you ask Soofi what he’s more grateful for after his decades in Canada it’s the freedom of expression and democracy not his house, nice car and comfortable lifestyle.

“If I had two choices stay in Canada and they take everything away form you or go back to Iran and have everything, big house, big car, I’d rather stay and be a dishwasher than go to Iran because I value my freedom,” Soofi said.

But Soofi, who is active in local politics, fears that Canada could go down the wrong path and lose its way if people become apathetic. He encourages other immigrants to get involved and wants to ensure people don’t give up the freedoms that were so hard won and don’t even exist in some countries.

For example, Canada has medicare but not pharmacare, he points out, and there are other social issues that need to be resolved, such as the rights of Indigenous peoples and poverty.

“It’s not that we are not good, we are, but we still have work to do.”

IGOR BJELAC

Country of origin, Serbia

Years in Canada: 4

Where he’s celebrating Canada Day: Whistler on a hike with his family

Igor Bjelac is known in the community for his hard work saving good food from being thrown in the waste bin.  He helped start the Immigrant Link Centre Society which repurposes good quality food for people who need it. Each week hundreds of families get fresh fruits, vegetables, meat and prepared foods near the best before date to supplement their meals.

As a recent immigrant Canada, Bjelac notes that he and his family experienced a better quality of life immediately, and he wants to give back by helping other newcomers learn English, practice new skills while also ensuring people don’t go hungry.

Bjelac
Igor Bjelac, in the background, with other members of Immigrant Link Centre Society. - File

He enjoys the freedom to live in a country where the police are there to “protect the people” not “the state”, and where he can walk down the street without fear of being interrogated or even attacked by law enforcement, as he was in Serbia.

“When I see police, I feel happiness not fear.”

Bjelac came to Canada for a better life for his daughter and to be in a country that values peace over war. He also appreciates the Canadian education system that he says builds self-confidence and self-respect instead of making children master concept by rote memorization.

“It’s not just English and Math, it’s also about social and emotional learning,” he says, adding: “Here it’s much more about who you are and what you can do. I’m saying that for my daughter it’s better.”

However, as he works with newcomers and other food recovery agencies such as FoodStash, Dan’s Legacy and ReFood, he has come across hungry people, and Bjelac admits that coming to Canada “I didn’t expect that."

Still, he’s appreciative of his adoptive country and the welcome he says he always feels.

“People want to help out here,” he says, “They really want to help.”

So as Canadians from coast-to-coast don red and white for the national holiday, these three immigrants to Canada, two citizens and one applying for his citizenship, will also be celebrating and hoping for an enjoyable day for all.

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