Project150 profiles the journeys and triumphs of immigrant women
The difficulties of settling in to a new country are myriad. While many immigrants join the workforce and experience discrimination or ambivalence about their previous work and education levels, others — often women — are left in social seclusion. Tracy Folorunsho-Barry was one of those women. Coming to Canada from Nigeria at age 17, she spent years feeling lost.
“When you are new to a country there are a lot of challenges. Integration, making connections, the culture shock, trying to find yourself. It was really tough,” she says. “I didn’t want to go out because I was ashamed of myself. For a decade of my life I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. I started to have babies and more babies to keep myself busy. There was a lot of missed opportunities. Coming to Canada, it turned out that opportunity was everywhere, but I didn’t know how to use it.”
Most days she was at home, caring for her young children, and the isolation began to take a toll.
“I saw a lot of immigrant women doing well. I thought, what am I doing wrong? These women are doing amazing things, becoming businesswomen, going back to school, doing things in the community, and being mothers too.”
Seeing the successes of those peers began to inspire Folorunsho-Barry, now a mother of five. She decided to turn her experience into a positive model to help immigrant women reach their career and social goals; in 2016 she founded the Gradual Rising of Women (GROW) network, which offers a fresh perspective and community engagement opportunities beyond the typical resources that cater to immigrant populations. The organization regularly holds networking and development events, plus an annual conference and awards ceremony that recognizes and celebrates the achievements of immigrant women in the community.
While working as an intern at Edmonton Immigrant Services in the spring of 2017, she began to gather stories from immigrant women in the community, knowing that just hearing of others’ triumphs and struggles helped inspire her own journey.
“I imagined, what would happen if I could get immigrant women who are successful to start talking about their stories, to talk about the women they are today? That would be awesome.” Come summer, she applied for funding through Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF), and received $10,000 for her new venture: Project150.
The goal of GROW’s Project150 at first was simple: Collect 150 stories from women about their different journeys to success in Canada. Folorunsho-Barry put out a call to immigrant-focused organizations across the country asking for stories in 300 words, with the aim to eventually publish an anthology. Quickly, she realized the word count was nowhere near enough for the empowering messages the respondents were willing to divulge.
“Things got emotional,” she says. People wanted to share more, to go into detail. Project150 soon bore the Speak Out Women series, which is ongoing at various cafés and venues in Edmonton this year. Conversation cafés with Project150 participants have appeared in Toronto, Vancouver, Winnipeg and Calgary, and Folorunsho-Barry sees the series as an integral part of the project’s overall aim: To reach out with stories of immigrant women’s struggles and successes, and in turn inspire those hearing the stories to dream bigger, get connected, and embrace their experience as new Canadians.
In October, Giselle General was in the audience at one of the Edmonton cafés. She listened as Dr. Svetlana Pavlenko talked about arriving here from Novosibirsk (she aptly noted that Edmonton was not so different in climate from Siberia). Pavlenko struggled to find work in the academic field she was accustomed to in Russia, and ended up working as a receptionist in a car dealership. She eventually rose to salesperson of the year at the dealership, and at the time of the conversation café, was campaigning for a seat on Edmonton’s city council. General listened and felt inspired, then signed on to be part of the project.
General came to Canada from the Philippines as a teenager in 2007 after the deaths of both her parents in a vehicle crash. She had also experienced sexual assault by an older male relative, and began therapy on coping with the double trauma.
“Mental health isn’t really paid attention to back home. There’s so much awareness and encouragement about mental health in Canada, which is incredible, because that’s helped me heal,” she says. General started by sharing her story at one of the café events, and later was invited to present at the GROW gala last October. Now settled into a full-time career as Volunteer Co-ordinator for the Edmonton Community Legal Centre, General assists many in the community in accessing legal advice.
In the next five years, General sees herself getting more politically active, and alludes to a desire, like Pavlenko’s, to run for public office. She adds that with the value of acceptance here, she can be confident in her identity as an immigrant and a person of colour. “There’s a lot of openness here in learning other cultures. I’ve learned that people navigate and learn the values and norms of politics in Canada, and of other religions. What I’ve found living in Canada, for myself it’s very empowering.”
As for Project150’s endgame, Folorunsho-Barry notes that the rest of the stories are still rolling in, and it won’t be long before the collection is ready for publication. Even so, the eventual printing may be more like icing a cake that’s half eaten; the effects of the story-sharing exercise are already spreading with the speakers series and the engagement the women experience after their moment onstage.
“They feel empowered,” she says. “I see them coming out in Avenue Magazine’s Top 40 Under 40; their workplaces or organizations are recognizing their achievements. The women in these stories are getting a lot of rewards.”
General is keen to see Project150 grow, too, knowing the comfort and confidence it provides to many women experiencing challenges as new Canadians.
“It reassures the audience and the other immigrant ladies that we all go through these struggles, or that sometimes the struggle is different; however, our transformation always has similar themes.”