Newcomers ride networks to security and success

TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Sat Mar 05 2011.    Daniele Zanotti

Neetan lives in an illegal basement apartment in Markham with 13 other people.

He told me to call him when I was in the driveway. The garage door opened, and Neetan appeared to let me in — through the only door they all use to get in and out of their house.

We walked through the garage, down a flight of stairs — a wall of mattresses, neatly laid and kept, a small TV, a kitchenette with table and two espresso cups ready. “You Italian, eh?” he says. “You like espresso?” I love this guy.

Neetan tells me of his two master’s degrees. He tells me of his visits to his mosque and some friends in Scarborough and Peel and shows me the food they give him when he leaves, to tide him over.

He tells me that when he first arrived, he felt alone — in a basement with 13 people, in a dense neighbourhood in the Town of Markham with more than 300,000 residents, in the Region of York with a population now over 1 million, in the GTA, in Ontario — you get the picture.

“Alone” he whispers. I sip the espresso, so bitter on my lips now.

This word is foreign to me. As an Italian Canadian kid, when my mom said we were going to the airport alone to pick up my uncle Beppe, there were 2,000 of us crammed into Terminal 1. When my mom said we were having Sunday lunch alone, there were 32 immediate family members honing in on my pasta.

“Neetan,” I offer, “United Way funds more than 100 programs across York Region. There are five Welcome Centres that can help with resumé writing, interview . . .”

“Mr. Daniele, you think every need requires a program,” he interrupts. “Maybe for the small percentage that go and fit into the program — but not for the rest of us.”

“So how can we help?” I say, all city-builder earnest.

“The action is happening here, on the ground,” he says. “Invest in the strength that is happening on the ground. Invest in home.”

Neetan tells me there are two ways of getting home. One is to never leave. The other is to travel the entire world until you return to a new place that feels like home.

“I have been in Canada, in Markham, for two years now,” he says. “It is starting to feel like home. If you really want to help Mr. Daniele, start with my home neighbourhood. And then take your damn programs and get the heck outta the way.”

I think of my parents, newcomers to Toronto — granted, in a very different time.

Their lifeline — their home — was, and still is, the rich, deep, informal network of friends and relatives, and bocce and cards and church associations that embraced, welcomed, helped them settle, gave them success.

I think of my meetings with the DeGasperis family, who started their real estate and construction empire on the back of a tar truck, and the Gagliano family, owners of St. Joseph Communications, who ran their first presses in the garage amid tomatoes and vino. Both credit their entrepreneurial success to hard work and family, of course, but also to a tight group of invisible, local cultural and community associations and networks.

“Neetan, did you ever read Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone? You know, social capital or community engagement?” I explain.

“No,” he says. “All I know is the first time I started to feel at home was when I connected with people at the grocery store and the mosque and the barber. That is the strength you should be investing in. If you start here, the rest will follow.”

Reminds me of Paul Watanabe, a professor from Massachusetts who studied newcomer and immigrant entrepreneurs across the U.S. and found that those who started businesses in neighbourhoods with rich informal networks and strong assets demonstrated double the success and sustainability and integrated within five years. Those who attempted the same without said informal neighbourhood supports took over 10 years to integrate with limited start-up successes.

Reminds me of studies across Europe where, to stimulate newcomer and immigrant integration and economic growth, governments focused not on policy changes, but first, on strategic and targeted capital, business start-up and training investments in neighbourhoods — those neighbourhoods with the richest, deepest concentration of informal networks and associations.

“Reminds me I have to go to work,” says Neetan, “at one of my two jobs.” Neetan starts his day early at the local Tim Hortons, a 15-minute walk through his sprawling four-bedroom suburban neighbourhood, and then takes his shift at a furniture upholsterer, a new start-up that he heard about at the barber, that now employs about 15 people from the neighbourhood.

Reminds me our time may be up, too, if we continue to think in programs and silos.

Maybe, to maximize the gifts of newcomers, immigrants, entrepreneurs and social capital, we need a regionwide strength fund to support the local informal action that is already happening right now, outside this room, from welcoming to integrating to incubating our future — and then, just get the heck outta the way.

Daniele Zanotti is chief executive officer of the United Way of York Region.

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