10 June 2009

From tourist to resident

By: Radhia Benalia

When I first came to Canada as a tourist from Algeria in 1990, I was one of the rare women wearing a hijab in British Columbia. Needless to say, I received all kinds of comments, anything from “Go back home, Shahrazad” (although being called Shahrazad was quite flattering to me as she was famous for her attractive looks) to “Can I take a picture with you?”
Some people would actually comment positively on my headwear and say that I looked “beautiful.”

Overall, this was much easier to handle than the way I had been treated in some European cities, and I immediately knew that I wanted to live in Canada. I wrote a lengthy letter to my parents explaining that people here were much more accepting of me and that I was contemplating spending the rest of my life in the beautiful province.

That summer, I met my husband, a student from Lebanon, but I had to leave the country since I wasn’t an immigrant and had to be sponsored by my husband first. A little more than two years later, I came back to Vancouver and became pregnant with my first child, Omayma.

Since then I have gone through a lot of ups and downs. It hasn’t always been easy. As I was looking for my first job, even though many people seemed almost ready to sign my first paycheque on the phone, they’d change their mind almost immediately as soon as I’d walk into their office. I was starting to give up on jobs other than telemarketing.

The first organization that really gave me a chance was the Public Service Commission. I was hired as a bilingual co-ordinator. I was thankful the federal government valued my ability to communicate effectively in Canada’s two official languages. After obtaining a degree in French studies and translation in 1998, I ended up landing a job as a French teacher in the linguistic training department of the Public Service Commission.

Life was good. Then there was September 11. Sadly, the hijab became one of the words in a vocabulary list associated to Al-Qaeda thanks to some media. Magazines would just put a hijab on their covers and the edition would sell like hotcakes. That’s when things became very hard for me and for so many other Muslim women.

It certainly hasn’t been a bed of roses, but I’m convinced that in spite of everything there is hope. Some people look beyond looks. Some employers have a genuine interest in hiring skilled employees no matter what — not that I consider my hijab a handicap or a hindrance. I now work for the Immigrant Services Society, where I teach English to new immigrants: people who, like me, are striving to do what it takes to pave the way for a better future for themselves and future generations of Canadians.

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