Country of Origin:
Citizenship, Immigration, Asian Heritage, Racism/Discrimination, Identity & Heritage, Multiculturalism & Diversity, Adjusting to Life in Canada
Bahi immigrated to Canada on her own. Her determination helped her to overcome cultural, gender, social and personal barriers and to successfully settle in Canada. Bahi has received many national, provincial and regional awards as a result.
Among many other high-calibre women, she was honoured as the 2005 Woman of Distinction in the Durham region for breaking down barriers, enhancing peoples’ lives in the community and for her contributions as a role model to other women. At the 2005 Peace Medal Award celebrations, YMCA Durham honoured her as a “peacemaker” in the community. She was selected as the 2004 Public Speaking Champion among the Ontario East Toastmasters. She placed third at the Ontario competition among 6,000 other competent Toastmasters.
Bahi was the keynote speaker at the 2006 Woman of Distinction event held in the Durham region. She has been a keynote speaker and a facilitator for several businesses, professional & community organizations and primary, secondary and post secondary schools and colleges.
I was born in Colombo, the capital city of Sri Lanka. I lived in Sri Lanka for the first half of my life. In my culture, women were not allowed to pursue a secondary education by their parents. They believed in the traditional view that marriage should be the limit of her ambitions. My parents did not allow my oldest sister to attend university. But, they paid lots of money to send my brother to London, England for his education.
In my culture, women were given in marriage for a dowry. This was the norm when I grew up in Sri Lanka. They did not see the potential or the contribution of a woman at home or outside the home. The women were not considered equals because they did not bring money or enough money to the table. Her contributions to the household, children and family were not recognized.
I come from a family of four girls and one boy and I am the youngest. My parents did not have a dowry for me to give me in marriage. Dowry was often a house, cash, jewellery, or a donation to groom’s family. Now you know why my parents did not have any when it came to me, being the youngest. So, in my teenage years, I was worried that I would never be married. I knew I must make a life of my own to become financially independent and to support myself. My wish was to go abroad and become financially independent. This was thinking outside the box for me. I had never travelled outside of Sri Lanka. Women were not allowed to travel alone. I knew only the best scholars went abroad to study or to work on a contract. They were all men. The only women who went abroad were their wives, accompanying their husbands.
I come from a country where the government kept the minority from entering university. Being a Tamil minority, I faced the Standardisation System that was imposed by the government limiting the Tamil students entering universities based on the ratio of the Tamil population to the majority. I faced cultural discrimination in addition to gender discrimination. Living in Colombo, I lived through communal riots, food distributed in rations, curfews and military vehicles driving by at night. In simple words, I lived like a refugee in my country facing the gender inequality caused by the unfair dowry system, cultural inequality by the unfair secondary education system, and being born the youngest of the four girls in the family without a dowry.
Living in these conditions caused much pain and anxiety. I finished high school and went on to study a British accounting degree in Sri Lanka. I wanted to go abroad & become financially independent. My focus was to complete my accounting studies and I did, while working for a chartered accountants firm. I sent my immigration application to the Canadian and Australian embassies. I didn’t have any family in Canada or in Australia.
I never thought in a million years that the Canadian embassy would invite me for an interview and would select me on “merit” to come here. I felt that I had won a lottery, a ticket to the moon. I never heard of a woman who was selected to come to Canada without a sponsor or a relative here. The gender and cultural inequality that I perceived started to fade away. I was not sure if my parents would allow me to go. Some discouraged me and thought it was crazy to leave on my own.
In the end, nothing stopped me from leaving Sri Lanka. The educational choices I had made were working for me though English was not my first language. I knew that coming to Canada was something better.
Coming from a protected family, it was a big challenge for me to start a life here on my own. I did not know to cook or to do my laundry. In Sri Lanka, laundrymen picked up and delivered the clean clothes. I was afraid of the dark. I wouldn’t go to bed until my parents locked my bedroom windows. Winter was only something that I had learned about in geography at school. English was my second language.
There wasn’t anyone to teach me the Canadian way of life. Though living through the winter months have been challenging, I had the freedom to become who I wanted to become. I was no longer afraid of the dark. The gender inequalities appeared to be fewer than the culture and the country that I came from. The year following my arrival here in Canada there were riots in the city. As I think of it now, I am happy that I followed my intuition to make Canada my safe haven.
Though my first job was with the City of Edmonton, I struggled to find acceptance while keeping my identity. Coming from a culture where women were restricted from dating, drinking, conversing with males, attending many social events, the integration became challenging. I experienced gender inequality in cultural groups, social groups and in employment situations. There was gossip in my cultural circles that I came here to find a husband. My trip here and being selected on “merit” surprised many because they never heard of a women migrating on her own talents.
I had never before been exposed to abuse. I met my partner in Ontario and I was married for two long years. I faced many challenges in this relationship. I ended up starting out on my own with my four week old infant son. I returned to work full-time after four weeks to support myself.
Even during this turbulent time I tried to stay focused. Within two years I was promoted in my job. My income doubled. My benefits doubled and on my own I purchased my first home. Many of the women from my culture do not see the potential to become financially independent, to raise a good child, and be accepted in the society so they stay in a bad marriage.
Now, my son is 20 years of age. He is earning his merits attending university. He was awarded a national scholarship to cover four years of university. He is now fulfilling his dream.
I went back to school once again to become a keynote speaker and a psychotherapist. I enjoy educating and empowering peoples of all ages. This is my passion and the successes follow wherever I go. This has led to receiving several provincial and national awards.
There are no magic solutions to combat inequalities. But stay true to your wants, and step across that bridge. The world needs you, your sensibilities, your caring hands, your loving heart, don’t hold yourself back any longer. We are meant to live our dreams