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Heroes on the frontlines of the pandemic: 2021 Immigrant Women of Inspiration

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Heroes on the frontlines of the pandemic: 2021 Immigrant Women of Inspiration

Our eighth annual ‘Immigrant Women of Inspiration’ special shines a spotlight on heroes who have continued to work with courage, confidence and dedication every day of this pandemic, making vital contributions to improving the lives of people in Canada in their own unique ways.

We bring to you four inspiring women from across Canada who have been on the frontlines of fighting COVID-19 and supporting their communities. Here are the inspiring and motivational stories of Dr. Theresa Tam, Jennifer Chen, Claudette Lennard and Vedanshi Vala.

We would like to recognize all nominations we have received this year as for our women of inspiration feature.Without their efforts, we would not be starting to emerge from this challenging situation.

Dr. Theresa Tam, Fierce Public Health Advocate

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, is a household name today. A fierce public health advocate, she has been a key voice in guiding Canadians during this pandemic.

Hong Kong-born Tam moved to the UK with her family when she was in primary school and got her medical license before moving to Canada in the early ’90s. Like all internationally trained medical professionals, Tam went through the re-qualification process and completed her pediatrics residency program at the University of Alberta before pursuing further sub-specialty training as a pediatric infectious diseases fellow at the University of British Columbia. “Inspired and guided by great mentors at the Children’s Hospital of British Columbia, I became interested in vaccines and their critical application in public health,” she says.

Tam entered public health through the Canadian Field Epidemiology Program at Health Canada (now at the Public Health Agency of Canada).

“Some of the happiest moments in my career were out in the field investigating and managing outbreaks of infectious diseases in Canada and internationally.

“It took me a while to say goodbye to my clinical practice, but when the time came to choose, I realized I was much more interested in how the ways we live, work and behave impact our health. I wanted to know how, by changing systems and structures, we could improve health  for everyone. The work satisfaction in public health comes from the prevention of illnesses and promoting the wellbeing of communities rather than treating one patient at a time,” she says.

One of Tam’s goals when she took on the key leadership role as Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer in 2017 was to make good health a possibility for everyone in Canada. “Equity is vital for ensuring health security and preventing future health emergencies. COVID-19 has highlighted the many facets of the pandemic response that are beyond actions of the health sector and that social, economic and other supports are crucial,” says Tam.

Tam encourages newcomers and immigrants to take action and seek support during the pandemic. “… Speak to people you trust in your settlement community or consult your primary care provider – either a family physician, a walk-in clinic, a community health centre, or even a hospital – to learn about the options that are available to support your health and well-being. This help is also available to newcomers,  including refugees. I urge you to get the help you need.”

She talks about the importance of finding ways to stay connected to loved ones in these challenging times and shares innovative ways she connects with her own large family, from virtual concerts to cooking sessions.

“Although we can’t be physically together, we have found ways to stay connected. Music is a big part of my family’s life, so we sometimes have virtual family concerts. We will all play the same music on our own and send the video to one of us who is more technologically adept than I am, to splice it together as if we’re all playing together. It’s quite amazing!

“I am sure many of you have musical families, or artistic families or families who like to cook together. I’m very close with my sister who bakes, and I am not a baker. It’s great to FaceTime with her and see what she’s baking. She sometimes sends me photos of these beautiful desserts which, of course, I wish I could eat. I really encourage you to get together with your families and friends remotely to share what you love doing, together,” says Tam.  Click here for the full profile

Claudette Lennard | Caring for the community

Early in 2021, Claudette Lennard received a call from Toronto Public Health telling her to isolate because she had been exposed to COVID-19. Immediately, she thought of her family. “I live with someone who is immunocompromised. If I brought the virus into the house it could be devastating.”

One of the Personal Support Workers (PSW) Lennard supervises mistakenly informed officials that she had been exposed. While Lennard had contact with the PSW who tested positive for COVID-19, it was only ever over the phone and not in person. Fortunately, the PSW recovered  from the virus, but during this experience, she found that the phrasing of the questions asked by Public Health confused her. It was a relief for Lennard when she was cleared, but also highlights the challenges faced by PSWs working in the community.

“They don’t get the same attention as health care workers in long-term care, but they’re doing just as much. They may see 10 different clients in a day. They work tremendously hard,” she says.

Lennard knows of what she speaks. April 2021 will mark 30 years of being the supervisor of home support for what was formerly known as West Toronto Support Services (WTSS) and is now Reconnect Community Health Services. Born in Jamaica, Lennard had an early affinity or older adults. “My grandmother was my main caregiver. She was my mom, she was my dad, she was everything. I loved her so much.” At age 13, Lennard was adopted by her stepmother and father in Canada and came to Toronto for a better life.

She graduated high school, but circumstances changed and she moved in with her best friend’s family. She had a child at 17, stayed home for a while, and then took courses to further her education. After a stint as a medical secretary, she landed a job as a transportation assistant at WTSS.

She made arrangements for clients to go grocery shopping or to medical appointments and rode the bus with the driver to assist the clients. That’s when Lennard developed a bond with seniors. She didn’t realize how strong that bond was until one of the clients died. “That special client once said to me ‘people always give flowers to old people. I don’t want flowers, I like it when you talk to me and treat me like I’m a person.’ When she passed, everything changed for me. It put things into perspective,” she says.

When a position in home support opened, Lennard was encouraged to apply. Management soon asked her to step in as supervisor. She has been doing the job ever since and now manages a team ranging from 40 to 50 PSWs, for a clientele that can vary from 300 to 500. She has honest advice for newcomers looking to become a PSW or a nurse.

“It’s a rewarding job and anything you put your mind to you can do it. But do it only if you have that passion to help others. Don’t do it because you think that’s the easiest way to get your status in Canada – get into it and be dedicated,” she says.

Lennard continues to work in the office during the pandemic because she wants to be on call for her PSWs who are out “in the battlefield”. She ensures they’re fully equipped and wearing their protection properly. She acknowledges their fears, encourages them, and highly values what they do. “Things have to change for PSWs. There needs to be more training and better pay, without a doubt,” she says.

When asked if she feels like an everyday hero, Lennard smiles and shakes her head. “I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. Give what you hope to receive. I’m proud of my kids, and I have a great husband. I’m blessed,” she says.
– Carolyn Bennett

Yijie Jennifer Chen, Organizing for change

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Yijie Jennifer Chen has been busy looking out for the immigrants and refugees in her hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba.

“People are staying home, and it bears a lot of stress and anxiety and agitation, especially for newcomers,” she says. She explains that immigrants are “eager to connect with other people,” but when you’re new to a country, it’s not easy building connections when nothing is open. So, “they isolate,” she says.

To address this problem, Chen started numerous initiatives to provide community for immigrants and other vulnerable populations. To name a few, she created and ran a walking program where, over the course of 70 sessions, 165 newcomers were able to safely socialize
and exercise together. She has participated in anti-racism campaigns to address the discrimination and xenophobia that’s been on the rise during the pandemic.

With the Women of Colour Community Leadership Initiative, she has run Zoom sessions with immigrants, Indigenous people, and other Manitobans, creating a space to socialize, learn new skills, and make reusable masks for low-income individuals. And, to support health care workers, she has organized “From our Kitchens to our Heroes,” where, with the help of a GoFundMe campaign, immigrant-owned restaurants donated meals to workers in hospitals and other health centres in Winnipeg.

“In this pandemic, I really see people’s hearts,” she says. “Everyone is wanting to help others. And that really inspired me to continue to do what I’m doing.”

While many of the programs Chen has been spearheading are new and were initiated as a response to COVID, her work to build up the those around her precedes the pandemic.

“Helping people in my community is my passion,” she says. Jennifer discovered this passion, kind of unexpectedly, when she moved from China to Winnipeg at the age of 25 to do her master’s degree in kinesiology at the University of Manitoba. There, she got involved in the school’s student union.

“I witnessed a lot of activism regarding fighting for student rights,” she says. And while she enjoyed kinesiology and originally planned to pursue a career in that field, she says, “I also discovered my passion in advocacy, in helping other people, and using my voice to speak up for people whose voices are not heard.”

Part of what fueled Chen’s drive to become an activist is the stark contrast between the work the student union did and the experiences she had in China. She grew up on food rations, never had the opportunity to vote, and speaking up against injustice was not an accepted practice.
“I come from a country that doesn’t have student movements or workers’ movements or freedom of speech or freedom of assembly. I didn’t know what those freedoms meant,” she says. “I think for me, coming to Canada really gave me a new life.”

In taking on this new life, Chen has gone on to pursue a career in politics and community building. She is currently a school trustee on the Winnipeg School Division Board, the president of the Women of Colour Community Leadership Initiative, and a member of a number of other boards, including the Asian Heritage Society and the Ethnocultural Council of Manitoba.

“As an Asian woman, I experienced not only racism, but sexism,” says Chen, explaining the reasoning behind some of the boards and initiatives she’s part of. “I really want to advance voices of women of colour and ensure … they are represented at different levels,” she says.

Looking forward to what she’ll tackle next, Chen says, “I will continue on this path to help other vulnerable people, to help other women of colour, other newcomers, and visible minorities.…help people to recover from this pandemic.”

For other immigrants who are hoping to find their way, as Chen did for herself, she offers this piece of advice: “Find your true passion and continue to do what you want to do.” And if you’re not sure what your passion is, she says, “Go volunteer, go to work in the community, and you will find what you want.”
Kaitlin Jingco

Vedanshi Vala | Technology for safer communities

Inspiration can happen anywhere. Vedanshi Vala found hers while commuting on public transit. Seeing cellphones everywhere, she pondered on making it a source of support for those needing it. The idea led her to create BOLT Safety Society – a non-profit providing a free platform to connect survivors of violence and abuse with tools and resources to take further steps.

Vala immigrated to Canada with her parents from India in 2008. “My parents always taught me to empathize and be mindful of others’ needs,” she says. “As the elder sibling, my sister’s safety was always my top priority.”

Young Vala’s familial concerns soon expanded to caring for the community. In high school, in 2017, Vala and her team participated in a global competition inviting young innovators to build a technology-based solution for women’s safety. “Although we didn’t win, we continued working on the idea. Our ultimate goal was to have a safer community; winning was secondary,” she reflects.

In 2018, the team ran their StandforSafety campaign where students were interviewed to voice their opinions on safety. Vala’s team developed their BOLT Safety platform in consultation with community experts and kick-started year 2020 with its official launch on the WIX mobile app. The platform increases education and access to information and resources to improve support for survivors of sexual violence and domestic abuse.

To have a larger impact on the Vancouver area, they soon entered into a collaboration with the Vancouver Police Department which proved to be a strategic move especially when the pandemic hit a month later. The City reported an increase in calls from women experiencing domestic violence.

“Although health and medical attention were prime concerns, there was a silent, shadow pandemic of domestic violence that needed to be brought to the forefront of response efforts. Those already living in unsafe environments were now restricted to their homes, more vulnerable to exploitation with limited and restricted access to support services,” observes Vala.

Vala and her team launched the ‘Safe Hubs’ initiative as a part of the BOLT Safety Platform in August 2020, funded by grants from TakingItGlobal with the Government of Canada, and Canada Service Corp, with the aim of providing safe spaces for survivors of domestic abuse in partnership with businesses.

“The platform features a map where members can locate alternate shelters, ‘Safe Hubs’, access support resources, self-defence tutorials, and connect with their own network of ‘Safe Buddies’,” says Vala. “A ‘Safe Hub’ is a location where survivors of violence can fearlessly reach out for help “This is a community-wide movement to create awareness around domestic abuse prevention, break the stigma and promote allyship.”

Since the start of the pandemic, the platform has seen a 40 per cent increase. Newsletter subscribers rose by another 45 per cent. And that’s not all. To ease the paucity of supplies at shelters especially during the pandemic, Vala’s team donates essential supplies to local women’s shelters besides creating awareness about existing support systems.

The #Bolt4Love campaign, that ran throughout April 2020, promoted social connectedness in light of sudden lockdowns caused due to the pandemic to create a way to check in on wellbeing of friends. Through this social media-based campaign, people were able to share empowering messages and cute e-grams. This draws upon the concept of candy grams, which would normally be an in-person tradition at  schools for students to share uplifting messages and sweet treats with each other but bringing this o an online setting.

As a dancer and documentary filmmaker, she has worked with local arts group U Create Art Serviceions to develop Art Hearts, a program that delivers virtual performances to seniors to nurture connectedness and combat social isolation during the pandemic.

She was recently awarded the VGH + UBC Hospital Foundation’s 2020 Outstanding Young Ambassadors Award for Leadership in recognition of her efforts to foster safer and connected communities. Vala’s ultimate ambition is to become a medical doctor to help survivors of trauma.

“Safety is our common right, responsibility, and duty,” stresses Vala who hopes to expand the project to other locations. “However, our ultimate goal is to make communities safer so that our platform is never needed,” she laughs. “Everyone is a changemaker. Let’s create safer homes and communities, together,” she says.

– Nazreena Anwar-Travas

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