Breaking barriers and moving forward for Asian women in NB

Written by Sophie M. Lavoie on May 19, 2017

Left to right: Cathy Holtmann, Devika Mathur, Tarun Mathur, Shanthi Bell, from the filmmaking team. Photo by Sophie M. Lavoie.

A chatty crowd of over one hundred people attended the opening of a symposium on Asian women in New Brunswick and the premiere of the film Breaking Barriers, Moving Forward.

Layla Rahmeh, originally from Syria, was the Master of Ceremony and welcomed the crowd to the event. According to Rahmeh, “it’s not easy [to be an immigrant], especially if you didn’t choose” to leave your home country.

Monique LeBlanc, Liberal MLA for Moncton East, spoke on behalf of the NB provincial government, stating “we are all immigrants” and asserting that the government wants “to make New Brunswick a better place, with equality for all citizens, and for women.” David Coon, MLA for Fredericton South, also attended the event.

The event’s first speaker was the Chair of the Asian Heritage Society, Madhu Verma, who moved to Fredericton in 1963 and was one of the founders of the Multicultural Association of New Brunswick. A powerhouse in her own right, Indo-Canadian Verma has been much lauded, including as one of Canada’s Top 25 Immigrants of 2012.

As a long-time observer of immigration in New Brunswick, Verma mentioned the many ways women immigrants come to the province, including as students, spouses, and migrant workers. In the past, many Asian women, especially those in arranged marriages, might have faced the conundrum of being forced to “stay in abusive relationships or face deportation.” More recently, according to Verma, the province has attracted “highly qualified Asian women who leave their family and community behind to achieve their dreams.”

Originally from India, Dr. Koumari Mitra, from the University of New Brunswick’s Department of Anthropology, welcomed visitors to the campus and explained the department’s involvement in this event. As demonstrated in the success of this event, Mitra declared “participant research is the way to go (…) hearing the voices of local women.” Eleven different women were interviewed for this film, including from Korea, India, Bangladesh, China and the Phillipines. Brining up some controversial opinions, Mitra stated “we have tried to get a conversation going” with this film and symposium.

Breaking Barriers, Moving Forward is a short documentary film (21 min.) featuring Asian women from New Brunswick. Through interviews, immigrant women share their personal narratives about structural barriers they have faced and how they overcame these challenges.

The film was produced by Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre for Family Violence Research (MMFC) director and researcher Cathy Holtmann. The filmmaking team was almost entirely made up by immigrants. Luckily for Holtmann, Devika Mathur and Tarun Mathur, recent immigrants (2016) from New Delhi were well versed in filmmaking and offered to help. Participant interviews were conducted by Devika Mathur and Shanthi Bell edited the film. Jeremy Nason, Communications Officer for the MMFC, rounded out the filmmaking team.

In the film, among other barriers identified, many immigrant women’s credentials were questioned, their previous job experience was not recognized. Additionally, many were victims of racism, and there were “added pressures” for girls who were always more policed than boys.

One participant in the documentary declared “in my head I am still not settled” because of the family left behind. Another contributor to the film deplored being “stuck in the house” without a network. So-called second generation Asian-Canadians expressed a need for the “liberty to dream and be passionate” about the possibilities of life, versus the parents’ strict expectations.

Looking back on their experience, many of the film’s participants offered brief suggestions for newly arrived immigrants: go out, extend friendships beyond established networks, “to show resilience,” and “to have faith in themselves, because confidence is so important.”

Unfortunately, interview subjects were only identified with their country of origin and not their name, contrary to the researchers. Identifying them would have gone beyond the generalization of “Asian women.” Besides Mitra and Holtmann, the other featured researcher in the film was Aamir Jamal from St. Thomas University’s School of Social Work.

Jamal lauded the “openness in Canadian society” that allows for immigrants to integrate. In commenting the repercussions of the film, Holtmann stated “we want it used widely” to “encourage others to share their stories.” She declared that “there is tremendous potential for use” of the film in NB. The film was well-made and featured beautiful shots of the city of Fredericton. It will be available on Youtube and various other websites.

The Asian Heritage Society of New Brunswick, active in NB since 2003, aims to promote Asian Canadian history, culture, and art. Other symposium co-hosts were the Department of Anthropology at UNB, Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre for Family Violence Research, and the NB Multicultural Council. The symposium was made possible by a number of financial backers including the Office of VP-Academic, the VP-Communications, the Faculty of Business, Faculty of Arts (all at UNB), the Government of NB, the City of Fredericton, Canadian Heritage, Dept. of Post-Secondary Education Training and Labour of NB, among many other sponsors.

This event was part of a day-long symposium held on May 19th, 2017, at the Wu Centre on UNB Campus to identify the barriers facing Asian immigrant women in NB and finding solutions to their integration.

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