How an immigrant’s experience overcoming barriers is helping others do the same

When Ashrafi Ahmed immigrated to Canada from Bangladesh with her husband and infant son in 2005, she had no idea where life would lead her.

“When we came to Toronto, we really wondered how we can approach things, how to develop our skills, and we were really shy to talk to people” says Ashrafi.

So, after her daughter was born, she started looking for a place where she could meet with people, talk and make friends. She did volunteer work at a family resource centre where she gained a sense of the community and developed her language and working skills.

“It’s a really good way to meet some good people in the community, and they support me a lot. That experience really motivated me and helped me understood no, we need to talk, we can speak up.”

Still, finding her way in her new country was not easy. Even with a Master’s degree in sociology, it was difficult to get a job.

“They wanted Canadian experience - you know the challenges immigrants face,” she says.

It was her participation in a women’s circle on heart disease and stroke that opened up new possibilities for her.

“After that one circle, I got in touch with the woman who convened it, Adonica, and offered to help,” recalls Ashrafi. Within a year, the Ontario Womens’ Health Network offered her a position as Inclusion Researcher and Lay Health Educator at Toronto’s Christian Resource Centre (CRC).

“We started doing women’s circles in different community housing buildings. Each group would have 8 to 10 women. We’d have different topics on different days. In some buildings they say they want to know about housing rights or housing issues. In some circles we’re working as lay health educators.”

This past spring, Ashrafi led discussions on children’s environmental health in 15 women’s circles across Toronto, as part of CPCHE’s “Top 5 Tips” campaign to reach families with practical information on how to reduce children’s exposures to toxic substances in the home. The circles were convened with the collaboration and support of staff from two CPCHE partner organizations: Jill McDowell of Toronto Public Health and Caryn Thompson with South Riverdale Community Health Centre.

“They gave us some training, showed us the ‘Top 5 Tips’ video and made sure we understood all the information clearly. Then we were ready to do some work with the groups,” says Ashrafi. “Jill and Caryn supported us, answered some questions, but my role is to facilitate the groups.”

“Our target is women with children under six years old,” says Ashrafi, “We’re reaching out to people with pretty low incomes, living in the housing or rental apartments, and we have reached almost 140 across the city.”

“They are concerned about lots of issues in their house when they attend our circles,” says Ashrafi. “They ask about how the lead comes from the paint, for example. And when they’re pregnant they’d like to move but they can’t, so they want more information on how they can protect their children.”

Many of the participants are immigrants, mostly from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Palestine and Iran. Ashrafi speaks Bengali, Hindi-Urdu and English.

“When people see we speak their language, they feel more comfortable. And they think I am the right person with whom to share their issues to get some help.”

“At one session, a guy showed up thinking we would not accept him into the group because he was a man,” recalls Ashrafi. “But this man had lots of questions and wanted to know how he could use this information to help his wife.”

“Everywhere we do these workshops, they always ask if we can come again because there is lots of interest.”

“My background is sociology, so I really like to work with people. And I really love to work with the health circles because there is more opportunity to help our community, help how people are facing different kinds of barriers and problems. So that’s the thing I really like.”

Ashrafi Ahmed may be contacted by email at