Welfare reviewed by those who know

TheStar.com – Opinion – Social assistance must be fixed so it won’t be so crushing for the next person who needs help
Published On Thu Jan 28 2010.   Sima Dini

This week marks the beginning of “the people’s review of social assistance,” a process led by 20 social assistance recipients to identify what’s wrong with the current system and to make recommendations to change and enhance the way municipalities deliver services, communities offer supports and governments provide income security benefits. This project is supported by the Daily Bread Food Bank and Voices from the Street. Over the coming months, the Star will be highlighting some of the participants in the review, beginning today with Sima Dini, who came here from Iran five years ago.

Growing up in the Middle East, I witnessed many variations of poverty, but I never thought it would become the reality of my own life. I had already survived a social revolution in my teen years, eight years of war with a neighbouring country and 10 years of a very difficult marriage, which ended in divorce. All this left me with the idea that I was a trooper and could face anything.

My departure from my country happened rather abruptly and in my race for survival, I didn’t realize that I’d crossed yet another border, that invisible line between the middle class and the poor. Looking back, I don’t even know how I managed to make it through the refugee process – which took four years – while my mind was feeling so numb and chaotic at the same time. I had lived a very independent life and worked as a nurse. Now I had to face the reality that overnight I had become totally dependant on the welfare dollars I was receiving.

As I was trying to recover from the trauma of being uprooted from my home and being away from my family, my mind really needed to catch up in order for me to survive and function. It was comforting to find people who cared about my situation and helped me find my way to a women’s shelter, then into the subsidized housing I have today. As grateful as I was for making it that far, the challenges of facing every single day couldn’t be ignored.

My first winter here came as a shock. I spent it recovering from the half dozen flus I caught, one after another. I decided I needed to be better prepared for the second winter, and was pleased to discover the concept of second-hand stores.

I still remember a jaw-dropping moment when a sweater I had found after looking through a huge pile of clothes was snatched out of my hands. I have to say I had no hard feelings toward the woman who did that. She, too, was probably trying to prepare for the cold as best she could. It does require layers of clothing to provide armour against the wind chill.

I learned ways of making the best of what I had. There are actually some stores in parts of the city where you can put 100 pennies in a plastic bag and take it to the cash register. They don’t even have to count them. The bag would just be weighed. It became my routine at the end of each month to count pennies to be dropped in bags.

In order to keep my costs as low as possible, I pulled out every skill that I’ve ever had. I cut my own hair, I shopped in Chinatown at the end of the day to get the best bargains, and I would carry as many items as my arms could bear to save money on transit – even if it meant a nasty look for taking up too much space on the streetcar. Yet even with all my determination and no matter how hard I tried to stretch my budget, I was never able to balance my finances on welfare.

As small as my place is – 80 square feet to be precise – I did not hesitate to share it when I met a woman from my country who, even with all the degrees and experience she had, couldn’t find a job in her field. She was facing homelessness, so for a time she slept on my floor. I’ll never forget her leaving each morning at 5, without taking a shower or eating breakfast. I told her many times to feel free to do what she needed to do, but she didn’t want to add to my burden.

I remember pooling our money together to buy a $ 1.50 hot dog to share, and I can’t count the number of times we gave one another a shoulder to cry on or shared a joke to cheer us up. She’s happily married in Europe now and just had a baby, but a bond has been created between us that the distance can’t break.

However difficult, there are some advantages in living in such close proximity to other people. It can create remarkable memories. It’s impossible for me to forget the aboriginal woman who was living a few doors down from me. My attempt to find out the reason for her frequent crying made me realize we both shared the pain of not seeing our children. As hard as it was to go through it, we found comfort and relief crying and mourning together.

I know that many people today are at risk of losing everything, of falling into poverty. That is why I am so pleased to have the opportunity through this people’s review to help fix a badly broken system of social assistance so that it won’t be so crushing and traumatic for the next man or woman who has to ask for help. Each of us who’ve been selected bring with us our experiences and our passion to make a difference, and our need to give back to this province in real ways. We hope readers will follow our progress and support our efforts.

Sima Dini is a graduate of Voices from the Street and a talented artist.

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