For immigrants in Windsor-Essex, Ont., even school lunches raise complex questions about identity | CBC News

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Halfway to Home: Immigration Stories, a five-part series, began April 24 on Windsor Morning. Tune in on our CBC Listen app or live at 97.5 FM. We’ll also be at the Budimir branch of the Windsor Public Library on Saturday for the event Creating Space

Parimal Parikh had been living in Canada for four years when he and his wife noticed their daughter kept bringing home her school lunch untouched. 

She wasn’t eating any food from home, the teacher told them. Sometimes, she would hide it. 

“She was feeling ashamed,” said Parikh, who immigrated to Windsor, Ont., from India in 2016. “We were so shocked. We thought she loves the food because she eats the same food at home [but] she said when she opens the lunchbox, there’s a smell and she’s feeling embarrassed.” 


LISTEN | Aman Ghawanmeh speaks on why she created the CBC Windsor series Halfway to Home:

Windsor Morning13:14Halfway to Home: Identity

CBC’s Aman Ghawanmeh shares the first episode from her series, Halfway to Home, with CBC Windsor Morning host Nav Nanwa.

In the first episode of CBC Windsor’s Halfway to Home series, which focuses on the topic of identity, Aman Ghawanmeh speaks to Parikh, who opened Namaste Indian Supermarket two years ago, and Manal Sandy, a PhD candidate, pharmacy assistant and mom of four who arrived in 2018 as a refugee from Syria. 

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Halfway to Home highlights the experiences of immigrants in Windsor-Essex. About one in five people living in the region are immigrants, which means Windsor-Essex has the 11th largest immigrant population in the country, according to Statistics Canada.

WATCH | Parimal Parikh, Manal Sandy and Aman Ghawanmeh talk about changing identity:

During a conversation at Windsor Public Library’s Central Branch, Parikh and Sandy spoke about how they’ve struggled and sometimes embraced their own senses of identity as newcomers to Canada.

“As immigrants we faced a lot of challenges. And now we’re settled in Canada, [we thought] our challenges are done,” Parikh continued. The lunch incident showed he and his wife that their daughter will also face her own “culture shock,” and may still be figuring out her own identity. 

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“The journey’s not over.” 

‘I am half Canadian and half Syrian’

Sandy said she used to worry that her children didn’t like traditional Syrian food, but she has come to accept that. Still, she wants to instill in them the “best parts” of both Canadian and Syrian culture. 

“They grow up in Canada and they belong to Canada, and I’m OK with this part,” said Sandy. “But I like them to grow up with the goodness like we have. They speak my language very well.”

Back home, despite her education, Sandy had always planned to not work as she raised her children, like her mother and grandmother did. But it felt different here. Many women worked and she wanted a job herself, she said.

New country, new language, new lifestyle: It wasn’t easy. She cried more than once at her pharmacy job.

But working and earning money has made her feel “totally different,” in a good way, she said. She has also started singing and wearing colourful hijabs — two things she said she never did before.

“My life has totally changed. I am half Canadian and half Syrian,” said Sandy. “I belong to both cultures, to both places. I like both.”

It’s important for newcomers to retain “some semblance of identity from the lives left behind,” said Jane Ku, a University of Windsor sociology professor who’s also an immigrant, and specializes in immigration and settlement.

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“It helps people cope. It helps feel a sense of belonging. Holding onto some familiarity gives people a normality when their lives are turned upside down.”

‘Just be you and everything will fall into place’

As Canada sets out to welcome record numbers of immigrants in the coming years as part of a plan to boost the workforce, Ku said communities need to embrace people who are different 

“As a society, we need to open the door to allow people to keep being themselves,” she said. 

Parikh has seen first hand how familiarity can help homesickness. In 2021, he opened Namaste Indian Supermarket on Walker Road. It’s a popular place for international students.

He said he’s seen the “joy on their face” when people find a product from back home — like a signal that their culture and their identity are welcome here.

“As soon as we come here, we try to act or behave like a Canadian,” Parikh said.

“One thing I learned is it’s OK to be you. Just be you and everything will fall in place.”

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