Her Own Words: My Mother’s Story of Resistance

By Mashal Khan

Over the next few months, we will be featuring articles and conversations from our Behind the Dust Visual Series Mediamakers. This is the fifth in the series.

Lately I have been feeling like an imposter – not quite good enough, specifically in relation to my art practice. I think it comes from comparing my work to so many successful and talented photographers on Instagram. In the age of social media, I often feel disillusioned because I am not yet where I want to be; getting caught up in the follower count, the likes and the business side of creating art.

My mother in front of her work at an art reception.

When I feel stuck or out of place, I tend to go back to my roots, which often starts with my mother, Nazia. She was in her early twenties when she immigrated to Canada with my father and two young children. Before moving to Canada, she studied visual arts at the University of Peshawar in Pakistan. Her enrollment was quite unusual for a conservative city like Peshawar, especially since she was a young, married mother of two young children. My mother told me that she was probably the only married woman in her co-ed class at the time, as the majority of married women from her class background stayed at home as housewives taking care of their children, while their husbands worked.

My mother Nazia in Pakistan.

With the support of my father, my mother continued her art practice within the first few years living in Canada, working as an art teacher and school coordinator at Immigrant Culture and Art Association (ICAA) in Hamilton. I vividly remember my parents taking my brother and I to these art classes in which my mom would teach us and other immigrant students how to draw still life, paint and use our creativity in a variety of different ways.

My mother working at ICAA
My mother working at ICAA

I think without these early experiences I would not be the artist I am today. She inspires me to take on political themes within my work and to create for my community and other women of colour, who often get misrepresented or not represented at all outside the oriental and white gaze. She has often become the subject of a lot of my projects that deal with issues of identity and belonging, which is funny because when I was younger I would be the subject of her early artwork.

My mother explaining the concepts behind her work at an art reception.
My father, my brothers and I in front of my mother’s work.

For this short documentary titled “how can you think you can save her, when you don’t even understand her,” I chose to focus on themes of resistance, belonging, agency, voice, existence beyond binaries and homogenization, honour, orientalism and little acts of resistance that women of colour, specifically non-western women, undertake in their lived experiences/existence in order to survive and resist imperialist, neo-colonial, white supremacist, hetero-patriarchal systems and structures of oppression.

Ever since our immigration, I had unconsciously understood my mother a victim of her circumstance due to her experience of getting married at the age of 15 through an arranged marriage process. I viewed this experience through an orientalist gaze, I didn’t believe that she had much agency in her life, that her life circumstances were a combination of decisions she had no part of, decisions such as going to school after marriage, immigrating to Canada, having children, etc. I took away her agency and voice, without actually listening to her tell her story. Like many white western feminists, I saw her in a way that I could easily digest with my binary way of thinking. I saw her as oppressed, voiceless, a victim of Islam and outward patriarchy of Pashtun culture, just like how most white women in Canada saw me.This project in part, was a way for me to actually listen to my mother speak about her own arranged marriage and find within her experience the nuances and complexity of the situation. In my mother, I find courage, strength, resilience, faith, compassion, power, love and revolution.

The story of my mother who was born in the Mountainous region of Swat Valley, in Northern Pakistan and had an arranged marriage at the age of 15 can easily be co-opted by the West to push their imperialist agenda, if she is not the one telling it. Arundhati Roy states that “there is no such thing as the voiceless, only the deliberately silenced or the preferably unheard.” My mother does not need you or me to speak for her, to victimize her, to save her. She can and will tell her story on her own terms.

Mashal Khan is an emerging documentary filmmaker and photographer. She was born in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan and along with her family immigrated to Canada in 2002. Mashal graduated from the University of Toronto with a Hon. Bachelor’s of Arts with distinction in equity studies, sociology and art. She values freedom, justice and equity and within her work she hopes to subvert the white and/or male gaze that has often spoken on behalf of marginalized women of colour. Whenever she creates work, Mashal keep this quote by Arundhati Roy in mind: “there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.@mashalkkhan

Conversations: How Migration Shaped a Generation

By Samah Ali and Aleia Robinson-Ada

Over the next few months, we will be featuring articles and conversations from our Behind the Dust Visual Series Mediamakers. This is the fourth in the series.

Sometimes, watching the people we love – our family – speak with rose-tinted glasses about the countries they once lived in ushers in a trickling feeling of diaspora and longing. Being raised in a different country, there is a distance from their perspective and experience. Our people travel far from their homelands in hopes of finding places they can call home. A place where they can root themselves and build new communities that connect them to  “back home” while creating new cultural traditions.

This uprooting, planting, and growing in a new country is a process that we, as young first-generation and second-generation people, are distanced from but also are so naturally embedded in. It is only when we inquire about this multirooted existence that we learn about ourselves, our people, and our parents. We know there is another place we call “home”. We grapple with who we are, our hyphenations, and realize that we are just the product of experiences that go well beyond our years and understandings.

With this in mind, we want to bring our study closer to home by interviewing our mothers — Valena and Shamis — about their experiences through Canadian immigration. Both first generation Canadians, one from the Caribbean diaspora and the other from the African. We ask questions about who they are outside of who we know them as and we learn about their dreams, their realities, and their hopes for us (and our generation).

Valena, 1980’s, hanging out with friends in Dominica.
Shamis poses in a restaurant at Sarit Centre in Nairobi — visiting where she once called home.

Aleia: Can you tell me your name and where you’re from?

Valena: My name is Valena Robinson. I’m from Dominica and I am first-generation Canadian.

Shamis: My name is Shamis Hargahfeh and I’m from Kenya.

Aleia: Why did you move to this country?

Valena: I moved here because my mother was here; I thought there would be better opportunities. I wanted to go to school, I wanted to do something different with my life, so I thought I would come to Canada because my mom was here and I had a lot of family here as well.

Shamis: I moved here in the late 80s. I just finished high school and […] my reason was to go to school. I wanted to pursue an education and get a university level education in Kenya. I want to add that, really, a reason to move was also for opportunity. Where I’m from, we were basically considered second-class citizens and not too many opportunities for people with our origins, so coming [to Canada] was first, getting an education, and the second thing was for opportunity.

A studious, school-aged, and youthful Shamis.

Aleia: Do you consider Canada home to you? If not, where is “home”?

Valena: That’s a funny question because when I’m in Canada I call it home but when I’m back home in Dominica, as per what just happened, I call it “home.” When I’m talking to people about “home,” I’m generally referring to Dominica, it just depends on what the situation is. For me, Canada is just a place where I live but Dominica is where I’m from. So that is “home”.

Shamis: Yes for sure! I’ve lived in Canada longer than anywhere else that I’ve lived in my life. Let’s look back: when I was in my hometown, I lived there until I was 16, then moved around a little bit to a few colleges and finally in Toronto, and I’ve lived here for 30 years. So yes this is home, and even when I travel and I go back home I look forward to coming back.

Home to me is really here in Canada — and yes we keep talking about going back home but when we’re there, we’re visiting. In my opinion, we’re visiting family or friends and maybe reconnecting with our old family members. But really, this is home for me.

Aleia: So Valena, do you kind of feel like a push and pull type of thing? Not like an identity crisis but more like you’re in between both. Or is it really a situational thing where you really just don’t want to explain yourself to people?

Valena: Uhm… There’s no push and pull because I’ve been in Canada for more than 30 years so it is home so there is no push and pull and it’s not really situational either… it’s just you’re born and bred in a place so you automatically think of that place as your home, anything else is just transitional. It’s natural to think of that place where you’re born and bred, where your family is and everything, as home.

Aleia: What were your hopes and dreams before coming to Canada and did they realize?

Shamis: I would say absolutely! And I think you’ll be getting very negative messages as to immigrants and stuff but I’ve had all positive experiences being here. I came and achieved my goals of going back to university and earned a degree, which earned me a job. I’ve been with an organization, which I’ve been in different sectors, that I’ve been working with for 25 years. So yes, my hopes and dreams have been overachieved. I don’t think I would be able to do this from back home as well as being in a role where I am recognized for my role for what I do and the contributions I make to the organization.

Valena: I wanted to go to school that was first and foremost for me. I remember when I was back home and I just finished high school and I met a woman who was 65 years old and I always tell this story. She worked with the government for many years and she decided when she retired she was going to go back to school and take courses and make herself better. I thought you know, “that is what I want to do, that is going to be me: I want to go to school, I want to realize all my dreams.” I thought if I came to Canada I would be sure to get all those dreams realized. Well, on arriving to Canada I must say it wasn’t what I expected and was very difficult. I went to school but I didn’t seem to be able to achieve the things I wanted to  because there was always some kind of obstacle, there was always some sort of bridge you had to cross, there was something you had to do to realize those dreams. It never seemed to happen for me. I can say that it’s only in the last few years that I’ve really been able to step up and do the things that I wanted to do and I’m slowly now in my later years beginning to see things come to pass. Canada is not an easy place to live. When I first arrived there was a lot of… you know, you get the sense that people don’t really accept you for who you are, you’re always trying to struggle and trying to make it. Every step you took forward you took two steps backwards. It was a long hard journey and there are still things that I want to do, that I need to do but this is Canada. That’s what it’s all about. Sometimes I think if I were back home I might be so much further.

Valena poses in her first apartment in downtown Toronto.

Aleia: What advice would you give to future generations moving countries?

Valena: People are always looking for something better. They say the grass is greener on the other side. But if you can make it in your own country, I mean, well, it’s good to travel it’s good to know other places but if I had to do it all over again I would not leave my country. I know that I would’ve been somebody if I stayed back home, I would’ve been able to go much, much further. Sometimes I wonder why people leave their country and come here. Canada makes it so hard for people these days; for immigrants these days. When you come, your education has to match that of candy, you have to go through so many hoops to become a citizen of the country. It takes an immigrant so many years to become a citizen. It’s only then that your benefits kick in. But even at that time, you’ve lived so long in the struggle that it only continues even after you’ve gained permanent residence or citizenship. I just think people need to think carefully before they make their decisions. I know there are so many reasons people come to Canada but I feel like if you have opportunities in your country where you can rise, you would be better off staying in your country. I can’t say what would have happened if I stayed back home but sometimes I wish I stayed home and made a life for myself there. Travelled, yes, but stayed home. I can’t really give someone advice because everyone’s experiences are their own, everyone’s path is different. It’s a double edged sword, it’s always a double edged sword. I just know if I had the choice again, I would have stayed. Canada for me, has not been the success story that I wanted.

Shamis: For me it was very different and this is something that [Samah] and I always talk about is keeping an open mind. If you keep an open mind and you focus on the important things — if it’s for a job you focus on your career and building your skill sets — you will be able to achieve your goals right here. As an immigrant, you get to come across cases where there may be racism or bias but let your merits speak for itself. Get educated, keep an open mind and let your credentials speak for you. That’s how I was able to achieve my goals in my organization and overall in life, in my personal life as well. Achieving my goals, not dwelling on the bias, racism and negative thoughts; just keeping a positive outlook. As you focus on the positive outlook your life becomes positive as well.

Aleia: What do you hope for your children (the next generation of people from your ethnic group)?

Shamis: I think the children born from migrants are different, and I see that from both of you. There’s no urgency to earn your degree and get a job and be independent. So what I would say is focus on completing your education. If you want to go into post-graduate programs I think my advice is get yourself a job, and while you’re at the job maybe pursue a master’s degree because most of the time I see people rushing into masters but really it does not suffice what they wanted to do. I suggest getting into the market, seeing what they want to do – maybe within two years – and see what interests them before they go do their graduate studies.

Pictured here is Shamis and her daughter Samah as a baby.

Most of the kids who were born here have their parents that help them out but at the same time have an urgency to be independent of your parents. From what I can tell, when we were here we were basically forced to grow up earlier because at 22, 23 we were in a new country, dependent on ourselves. We were coming up with our rent, coming up with our budget for food, so again, I don’t see that type of urgency for young children of migrants. So the focus is education, get a job, get a good merit, let your work speak for yourself and be independent.

Valena: I hope that they’ll be able to put aside the negative around West Indians, Black people, but mainly West Indians. Slowly, West Indians are rising above. West Indians are very ambitious because as children they’re told or it’s beaten into them that they have to make something of themselves. West Indians are very disciplined when it comes to education. They are like that because they know what they can achieve based on that education. And so, a lot of West Indians have come to Canada and travelled the world and succeeded in rising above and I hope that the generations coming up can want that for themselves. See themselves not just as West Indians, not just as Canadians, but successful people and strive to reach those goals.

content creator and producer, samah ali’s work specializes on topics of diaspora, culture, and identity conceptualization. she writes, speaks, and documents all while throwing witty remarks and curating an eclectic meme gallery . she is a film buff, music fanatic, and tea enthusiast.

Inspired by youth, beauty and rich cultures, Aleia Robinson-Ada is a photographer, artist and visual storyteller living in the city of Toronto.  Aleia values culture and history deeply, for her, photography has always been a way to tell intimate, adventurous, bold and historic stories. She believes photography has given her a platform to share and create work that speaks to the world around her. Aleia focuses her photographic skills on, but is not limited to, portrait, documentary, photojournalism and her personal favourite, travel photography. Aleia started her own company, Aleia Robinson Photography, in 2014 and continued with a strong momentum for the past three years.

Capturing the Quiet Grace of Undocumented Women in America’s ‘Colonias’

By Shaghayegh Tajvidi

Visual Journalist Shaghayegh Tajvidi documents her journey through the heart of America’s Colonias — the land where undocumented migrants band together to survive. 

By Shaghayegh Tajvidi/This is Worldtown

It’s early September and we are driving on a highway in the Rio Grande Valley in the very south of southern Texas, en route to a colonia for the first time. The word colonia literally translates into colony, though in Spanish it simply refers to a neighbourhood.

We wanted to speak with those residing in these neighbourhoods, which dot the harsh, isolated terrain between two states.

Cacti and abundant palm trees make for easy window gazing – until we cross a massive regional surveillance blimp and soon after, the windshield collides audibly with thousands of butterflies migrating to Mexico. My colleague’s expression is composed, but I feel an instant jolt. It’s a juxtaposition that invokes the violence of borders, one splattering monarch after the next.

I promise, this is not a story about powerlessness.

Our political discourse speaks endlessly about immigration, and undocumented peoples, but rarely from undocumented peoples themselves. So, we set out to hear testimonies from those indigenous to the land, who are forced to live in squalor in America. This contrast depicts life in the colonias, except they are fighting back.

Texas has the highest concentration of these settlements, which began to pop up in the 1950s. To this day the relationships between residents and developers remain complex and unstable. Think: (often) white landowners renting substandard housing and infertile land to migrant populations living in extreme poverty. Family incomes are far below the average of Texas’ border counties ($16,717 in 2015) and unemployment levels are eight times the state rate, according to the Dallas Federal Reserve.

Homes are built in violation of codes, out of cheap and DIY materials, meanwhile developers can repossess properties with ease. Thousands of colonias exist in Texas alone, and are, like their 500 000 residents, off the grid.

Often, there is no sewage, electricity and they lack basic services like garbage collection. For waste management, families band together to commission trash collection with little or no assistance from local governments. Similarly, they’ve organized for street lamps, which some communities have been successful in gaining, while others continue to mobilize.

In Colonia Los Olivares, the community fights for roads and street lamps. Shaghayegh Tajvidi/This is Worldtown
In Colonia Los Olivares, the community fights for roads and street lamps. Shaghayegh Tajvidi/This is Worldtown

Colonias sit on the very fringes of counties, and outside municipalities. They are impossible to get to without a vehicle, and with many neighbourhoods still pushing for paved roads, it is only a matter of time before the vehicle hits a ditch. Calling for assistance can be risky business, as being caught without documents can be far more consequential than dealing with a flat tire.

But with this despair comes a determined set of women leaders who are are strategizing, organizing meetings and demanding justice.

As several of these organizers tell me,“we are stepping now into the light.”

Rosa Garcia, 56, in front of her home in La Frontera Estates #3 [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/This is Worldtown]
By Shaghayegh Tajvidi/This is Worldtown
Through ARISE, Rosa Garcia and members lead the fight for clean water and environmental justice [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/This is Worldtown]
“I hope to God I can find a more permanent place for my trailer,” Rosa Garcia tells me, on the drive to her home in Donna Lake.

“I’d prefer to find somewhere close to Alamo or Donna, because that’s where I know I can help the most people.”

She moved to colonia La Frontera just over a year ago and has been a community organizer for the last 16 years. Throughout this time, much of the organizing has been with ARISE (A Resource in Serving Equality) though Rosa’s mobilization efforts began not long after her arrival to the US from Reynosa, Mexico, 24 years ago.

“I’ve gone knocking on the doors of 350 families to see what services they need and if they want to participate in programs. Wherever I live, I get involved with the community.”

Rosita never quits. She cleans homes, bakes and sells goods, finds odd jobs in schools and community centres, and when nothing works, puts up garage sales.

“The real story here,” she leans in, “is that I’m a single mother of five.” She points to the neighbouring trailer, in which her daughter’s family lives.

“I’ve raised these five children without [support from the state] and yet I pay my taxes.”

Flor Martinez takes pause from Bingo night to share her story [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/This is Worldtown]
Everybody absorbed in play in Colonia Mi Sueño [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/This is Worldtown]
Nestled near his family, a child too young for board games invents his own fun [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/This is Worldtown]
Yolanda Reina, organizer and part-time bakery worker, says community morale is higher after joining LUPE [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/This is Worldtown]
By Shaghayegh Tajvidi/This is Worldtown
“I have a strong base of people to mobilize,” says grassroots leader, Eva, of Colonia La Fruta. “Organizations often come to me for help.” [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/This is Worldtown]
Bingo night in Colonia Mi Sueño brings everyone out.

The dense heat of the afternoon has finally subsided, allowing families to gather around picnic tables in the yard. Hot nachos are in high demand among participants of all ages, who are absorbed in both conversation and play.

This night is not just about recreation. Through modest game fees, the community is raising funds for their LUPE membership (La Union del Pueblo Entero), which they believe has been transformative for their empowerment. A total game changer for morale.

I settle at the back of the yard, where a few women graciously pause from their boards to speak about their lives.

Among them is Flor Martinez.

In a calming cadence, she recounts how residents of Mi Sueño fought years for street light installation – a major victory after a grueling five-year struggle.

“The darkness brought a lot of problems. We couldn’t see. Robberies happened, children couldn’t play or be outside freely. They couldn’t see the school bus arriving. It was dangerous.”

Having won light fixtures, they are now pushing for drainage.

The urgency for sewage could not be more evident in colonias that lack it. Even light rain culminates in disproportionate flooding around the neighbourhood, never mind the aftermath of torrential downpours Hidalgo county is sometimes subject to.

The lack of basic infrastructure means kids get sicker here, Flor says.

“They can’t exercise because there isn’t green space close by. All these issues, they’re connected with each other.”

Flor and her children live in a house with two other families to keep housing costs at a minimum; her annual income of three thousand dollars doesn’t stretch far. Despite the difficulties, she could not be prouder of her community’s resilience.

She’s certain the pressure is finally putting the people of colonias on the radar of public officials.

Emma Alaniz and family moved to Curry Estates sixteen years ago and were the colonia’s first residents [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/This is Worldtown]
It is 104-degree heat when Emma Alaniz invites me into her home.

She has lived in Curry Estates for nearly two decades. It is where she raised her four kids.

All but Roberto, now aged 28, have moved away.

“They had a happy childhood, they would run outside with their dogs. The entire colonia was their playground. We were the first ones here.”

From a distance, Curry Estates could be a neighbourhood in any corner of the country. It has paved roads and some beautiful abodes, such as Emma’s. What we are looking at, she tells us, represents years of struggles, which are ongoing.

When Hurricane Dolly hit southern Texas in 2008, colonia residents bore the most extreme brunt of the flooding.

“[In its aftermath] I saw kids playing outside and realized that the contents of our septic tanks were also rising and mixing into the flood water… where the kids were playing. It worried me,” she recounts.

The disaster brought some members of the community, including Emma and her husband, to their first meeting to discuss drainage systems. “For me, mobilization started that day.”

She turned her home into an organizing space. Six people showed up to the first house gathering – a triumph. Over the next four years, meeting attendance grew. They rallied relentlessly in front of the commissioner’s court.

Eventually the commissioner caved. The county would move forward with sewerage plans for the colonia. For Emma, the accomplishment also served as a big epiphany.

“This work has taught me that we should have the same rights and same access to services as people do in cities. We’re stepping out of the shadows now.”