One of the first things I did when I arrived in Canada was ask to join the track team. There was just one hurdle — all the other guys were about six feet tall. At just 5’7”, I needed to convince the coach I was good enough for the team. “I may have short legs, but I can run really fast,” I remember saying. I tried out, and ended up competing in the 100m, 400m, and 4 x 100m relay, and continued running on the team until graduation.
It was 1988 and I was a 15-year-old high school student at Westlane Secondary School in Niagara Falls. My family had left Pakistan after the government imprisoned my father for leading a pro-democracy march, and we had landed in Canada in the middle of winter.
Like any newcomer, it was a totally new beginning for me — I had to learn English and adapt to a new culture. Like any teenager, I wanted more than anything to belong. As I was passionate about running, I figured running track would be a good way to help start this process.
Being on that track team made all the difference for me. I made new friends, felt valued for my accomplishments, and it instilled in me a real sense of belonging. Later, as an adult, I realized just how much being on the track team helped me integrate.
I still run these days, mostly 5k charity races, but I am just as likely to be found at sports events like the Community Cup, which began as a one-day soccer tournament for newcomers to Ottawa and has grown into a year-round sports program and supports events across Ontario.
We know that meeting established Canadians is essential for newcomer success. In Canada, where lifelong networks are built in hockey dressing rooms and curling rinks, recreational activities are especially important to making valuable contacts.
So one of the Community Cup’s programs matches newcomers with people working in their chosen field such as banking, policing, or nursing to share and develop skills in activities such as volleyball, curling, and cricket. Another program partners newcomers with mentors to volunteer for events like the Terry Fox Run. And it all culminates in the annual Community Cup soccer tournament, bringing together more than 1,500 newcomers and established Canadians.
Along with helping with networking, sports programs like the Community Cup can make a big difference in the mental and physical health of newcomers. For many new immigrants, their morale and self-esteem take a big hit as they struggle to find employment or figure out how to fit in.
Sports put everyone on a level playing field, where language and other social barriers are reduced. When I was running track, it didn’t matter where I was born or what kind of accent I had.
Still, many newcomers don’t really think about sports. They often have other things that take priority. But I’ve seen the difference events like the Community Cup can make for newcomers — helping them network, find out about services, and even meet potential employers. More than that, it helps newcomers feel like they belong, and are truly welcome in their new home. And that is a goal worth aiming for.
~ Yasir Naqvi MPP, Ottawa Centre