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February 2, 2000


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For the immigrant and the refugee

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Sonia Chopra

Ratna Omidvar has lived in three continents. But she found easy the transitions to a new life in a new country with a new language, new regulations and an entirely new culture.

But it set Omidvar thinking of the many handicaps new immigrants and refugees must face in the countries they seek to make their own.

Her interest in the migratory problems would eventually lead her to join one of the most visible of immigration agencies in North America.

Today, Omidvar is the executive director of the Maytree Foundation's Refugee and Immigrant Program, a private foundation that spent a million dollars last year in assisting new immigrants and refugees to make their home in Canada.

The foundation focuses on the two areas that Omidvar considers the biggest challenge to all immigrants -- employment and refugee status.

"Many people call our foundation's work 'narrow,' but I prefer to call it focused. Isolated seniors, orphans and abused women are all worthy causes but we only work with people in these two categories," said Omidvar, 52, who added that people who approach the foundation with other problems are referred to other agencies.

Twenty years ago, when she first came to Canada, she worked as a translator and, later, with not-for-profit foundations. Two years ago, when Maytree offered her the position, Omidvar was more than ready.

"I fitted in nicely with the voluntary, civic and not-for-profit programs. I had found my niche. I decided I wanted to help people to find a job or refuge," she said.

Omidvar has had experiences in many Canadian agencies. Among her most notable achievements have been establishing the first-ever employment and counseling center for immigrants and refugees and working towards making licensing and accreditation for foreign-born professionals easier.

"Ratna is a dynamic visionary. She imagines how something can be better and then develops a drum tight strategy to get there. Her drive to make things happen is inspiring. She is always able to motivate everyone around her to achieve the tasks at hand," said Suzanne Gibson, who worked with Omidvar seven years ago at the Skills For Change Foundation.

"She cares deeply about human rights issues, especially about immigrant and refugee rights, and is always finding new and exciting ways to break down barriers that limit newcomers in Canada," said Gibson, who was the manager for fundraising while Omidvar was executive director at Skills.

"Ratna has a huge heart and keen interest in social justice and equity. She empowers others by involving them in solutions and actions that result in positive change," said Gibson, who found a mentor in Omidvar.

The other highlights of Omidvar's career have been holding positions as vice-chair of the Ontario Human Rights Code Review Task Force, as president of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants, as a director of the Ontario Training and Adjustment Board. Currently, she is the director of the Laidlaw Foundation and serves as an advisory member to York University's Student Success.

She has helped Asian doctors in Canada build a coalition to improve job opportunities for themselves and supported projects to train migrant women acquire technological skills.

One of the most important "qualifications" she brings to her job is her "instinct".

"I can feel with people. I can feel their thoughts and their pain. I go through all their emotions with them and it is a weakness because I can lose a little of myself. I lose a part of my identity. I take on a little bit from everyone I meet and every place I go to," said Omidvar, who felt like a vagabond until she settled in Toronto.

"This is home. I love Canada and I am proud of being a Canadian," Omidvar said.

Omidvar grew up in Amritsar in a close-knit family. Within the confines of a traditional upbringing, she received a well-rounded Catholic education. She spent her academic years in Remnnee Park, a boarding school in Nainital, and received a bachelor's degree from Lady Shriram College, New Delhi.

"The options were limited for girls in India. I didn't want to get married, so I asked my parents to let me study German," said Omidvar, who was then 19.

The classes at the Max Mueller Bhavan, New Delhi, bought Omidvar freedom and romance. She met her future husband, Mehran Omidvar, and after a six-month whirlwind courtship followed by an Indian marriage and jaunts in Europe, Omidvar followed her Iranian husband back to his country.

"I didn't expect to fall in love with the country, but I did," she said. "The physical beauty of the country, the desert, is overwhelming. I went there with a lot of trepidation because of the image we have of Iranian society, of them being rigid fundamentalists and fanatically religious.

"But the people were warm, open, generous and with a sense of humor. They were so funny that they constantly cracked me up," Omidvar said.

The five years spent in Iran were initially hard though, she admits. "The first Sunday after we arrived there, my husband was drafted into the army. Here I was in a foreign country, I could not speak the language and had no friends or relatives to help me," she recalled.

Omidvar believes she survived because of her liberal arts upbringing and her spirit of inquiry. Her husband's salary from the military added up to $ 8 a month, so Omidvar began teaching.

The Omidvars immigrated to Canada when the Shah's regime began tottering and Iran was being taken over by a conservative religious movement in the late 1970s.

"It was a hard decision, but the reality of the revolution was frightening," she said.

By then, their first daughter was born and they "were worried about the attitudes towards women which was not in keeping with our values," said Omidvar, whose daughter Ramona, 21, a second-year student at the University of Toronto, is studying to be a lawyer. She hopes to work for refugees at the United Nations.

Omidvar's second daughter, Yasmeen, is 14.

Her husband, a research and development engineer, works for IMAX, a film-making company.

As an activist, Omidvar is concerned about the invisible boundaries between Indian immigrants.

"We have educated qualified Indians on the one hand -- they are the doctors and the engineers who belong to a English speaking culture," she said. "On the other, we have someone who is a security guard at a warehouse. And they stay separate, they never interact. That concerns me very much."

"Indians like to stand tall. We like success but we have to reach out to one another. These are the problems that define us as a nation and it should end," she said.

For more information on The Maytree Foundation, please contact: 170 Bloor St W, Ste 804, Toronto ON M5S 1T9. Or call (416) 944-2627 or fax (416) 944-8915 or

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