Engaging Students, Building Community – Community-Engaged Initiative Grants, Centre for Community Partnerships, University of Toronto

By Amina Farah, Centre for Community Partnerships

Image of the Dallal’s, a family of seven, originally from Damascus.

The Dallal’s, a family of seven, originally from Damascus, were part of the 500 newcomers who accessed the free eye care clinics organized by UofT students

Have you ever gone for an eye exam?  Stared at an alphabet chart and sounded each letter out? For many people this isn’t possible. “Myself, my wife and our (five) children had not had an eye exam since we left our home in Nawa. Food was more important than eye care and anything else,” said the 46-year-old Mohammad, who was a pharmacist in Syria. The Dallal family’s visit to an eye clinic was organized by Tarek Bin Yameen.

Tarek and his family came to Canada as immigrants after the civil war broke out in Yemen. Now a second-year medical student, Tarek is using his personal experience and knowledge to support other newcomers. He organised free eye care clinic for Syrian refugees. “Even though they had federal health coverage, they never accessed eye care treatment,” Bin Yameen said. This fall, after approaching several community partners, and with support from a Community-Engaged Initiative grant, Tarek ran three free eye care clinics. Partnering with St. Michael’s Hospital, Prism Eye Institute in Brampton, and Mes Amis community services, the project has provided eye care for nearly 500 people to date and built a community of support for refugee families.

Across campus students are working together with non-profits to create community and Community-Engaged Initiative Grants at the University of Toronto’s Center for Community Partnerships encourage this work. The grants are designed to ignite and strengthen student-community partnerships in the Greater Toronto Area and, this year, twenty projects were started by University of Toronto students and their community partners with the help of a CEI grant. The diverse projects range from teaching music to youth to creating workshops for a women’s drop-in centre to mentoring high-school students.

On February 15th, for instance, an auditorium at the University of Toronto was abuzz with excitement. The first Youth Engagement Day had begun and students and mentors alike were ready to explore the campus. The day, which was organized by the Black Students Association (BSA) and made possible by a CEI grant, was inspired by the BSA’s annual high school conference that brings 400 high school students to campus each year. Recognizing that some students couldn’t come to a day-long conference, the BSA created an evening Youth Engagement event. “We partnered with Pathways to Education Regent Park because they support students in Toronto’s underserved communities. We wanted to contribute to their initiatives since our BSA is filled with members who come from these unsupported neighbourhoods and exposure to university spaces is something we never got,” said Milen Melles, who helped organize the event.

Students who receive CEI grants are community builders; the grant allows them to both think beyond the classroom and understand communities as more than simply locations for applying theory to practice. Many students are part of the communities they are partnering with and together they are creating knowledge as they build community.

Happening as part of the University of Toronto’s Indigenous Education Week, on January 24th Storying Together captured the power of storytelling and the part it plays in forming, finding and reconciling identity/ies. “Story” was presented in a variety of forms at this event: as a short film about urban Métis youth connecting to identity and community through culture and tradition, as digital stories created and produced by Métis community members, and as an in-person sharing circle facilitated by Métis student, Elise St. Germain, and  Gabriele Simmons, a settler-Canadian student.

“We hadn’t anticipated that so many people would turn out for the event; it was remarkable to see how its central themes spoke to such an array of people and how we all came together for such a successful evening,” said Gabriele Simmons.