Mariam Bilgrami is the Director, Grants & Community Initiatives at Vancouver Foundation. As an immigrant to Canada, Mariam’s lived experience in overcoming barriers newcomers face in their settlement journey was the starting point of her career in Social Justice. She is an advocate for anti-racism, anti-oppression, and anti-inequity. She’s a trained JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion). She is one of the winners of Canada’s Top 25 Immigrant 2022.
The Realities of the Canadian Dream
Many people move to Canada with an expectation that they might not get the exact job they want when they move to Canada. Thereafter, newcomers are surprised to learn that they won’t come close to their pre-arrival careers. Mariam arrived in Canada with her mother at the age of 17. Her mother was a medical doctor and found her qualifications were not accepted in Canada. As a single mother, she made the choice to move back to her home country of Pakistan, leaving Mariam in Canada to pursue her high school education.
“So many of my colleagues have PhDs and have extensive work experiences. Yet this experience isn’t considered equal to or more valuable here. After spending 10 years of their lives getting their degree and working, they now must do a job that they never imagined they would be doing.”
After trying to finish her degree in Canada, first at York University and then at Kwantlen Polytechnic, Mariam returned to Pakistan to work. She later returned to Canada only to find that her experience was not recognized. Even though her education was from Canadian institutions.
“Canadians ask immigrants “what did you expect?” Not this. It is not clear to us, before we come to this country, that we are less than because we come from a specific place. It’s not clear to us that we won’t be equal to others. Unfortunately, Canada has great marketing. Across the world, we think we’ll come here and have a good life.”
Mariam’s experience motivated her to be an agent of change. As a social justice advocate, she challenges the biases that are currently in place in systems available to support immigrants. One such bias in place is about ones country of origin. Immigrants from predominantly ‘white’ and European countries face far fewer barriers. Their credentials are recognized; their experiences are valued. Furthermore, while Canada offers supports for people from countries in which their credentials and experiences are not recognized, there are often numerous barriers in place.
“When we say free, but there’s often a waitlist for services. While waiting months to get your language instruction, you continue to need to pay the bills and put food on the table. Or, you can’t get a job until you have your credentials evaluated, or gain Canadian work experience, or get a food-safe certificate, etc. Suddenly you face barrier after barrier. Many refugees come to Canada bearing loan repayments for their flight here, so again, a barrier; These are the things that I wish people knew about, so statements like “oh you shouldn’t have come, or you should have known” would come to an end.
Mariam started her career in Canada with MOSAIC as a Receptionist and Program Assistant. She was able to see and hear things that she wouldn’t have were she in a more advanced position. Mariam was able to meet her clients in a way where there was no power dynamic. She witnessed much inequity in her own life and in the life of the immigrants she worked with. Her organization supported her efforts to make impactful change.
“I really enjoyed facilitating conversations on anti-racism, anti-oppression, and inequity. Our organization recognized that a few of us wanted to do this more and wanted to do it well, without causing more harm. They funded me and colleagues to be certified J.E.D.I.s (Justice, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion) through Northwest College. M.O.S.A.I.C. later created a Centre for Diversity to provide anti-oppression, anti-racism, cultural safety, inclusivity, and leadership training to other organizations.”
After moving into a Coordinator position at MOSAIC, Mariam was able to obtain funding for the creation of SCENE – Social and Civic Engagement for Newcomers project, now known as SCOPE – Social and Civic Opportunities; Pathways to Equity. This project provides racialized newcomers a voice by diversifying governing bodies. Organizations interested in having immigrant and refugees at their decision-making tables work with MOSAIC to create opportunities for placements on boards that match participant interests.
“I recognized the privilege in participating in this project and did not want to insert more harm in the creation of this guide. As a facilitator, I was able to bring together the tables needed to contribute to this guide: The Surrey LIP membership, which includes 30 groups from cultural, business, academic, health and employment services; the Surrey Youth Newcomers Council; and our land-based Indigenous representatives. This project was recognized through the BC Reconciliation Award and has received additional funding to expand this work throughout BC and share it forward.”
Mariam’s efforts in Social Justice led to her current role as a Director, Grants & Community Initiatives at Vancouver Foundation.
“The number one thing that excites me, in my new role, is that I am now on the ‘other’ side. I’ve always been the one asking for money. Jumping through hoops. Seeing barriers. Having lived on the other side of it is so helpful in this case. There are many barriers in the non-profit space. This can be something as small as not understanding eligibility, or something as large as not wanting to ask a ‘silly’ question because we don’t want the funders to know that we don’t know what we’re doing. We can shift the power from traditional, colonial philanthropy to a trust-based perspective and build partnerships with grantees as opposed to the current power dynamics that exist. I hope that my time with the foundation allows us to remove some of those barriers.”
Becoming a Canadian Top 25 Immigrant Award Winner
As a winner of Canada’s Top 25 Immigrant Award, Mariam expresses her mixed feelings of what this award means to her.
“I feel joy for being recognized in such a way and, at the same time, I never want people to think I got here because of just hard work. There are many things that brought me here: being in the right place at the right time, having amazing and generous mentors, having doors opened for me. There’s such a trope around being the hard-working immigrant. I don’t want anyone else to say “I worked so hard, so why not me?” or think “If I work harder I can have this too” I am very aware of my privilege and power: I speak English as a first language, I went to university in Canada, I find public speaking and engagement easy. I don’t want anyone to look at me and think they’re not doing enough; they are. At the same time, I am feeling the highs of being valued and seen for the work I have been privileged to do.”