An Interview with Arsalan Samdani
Author: Zohra Goawala
Date: 2012-06-05 16:52:30
Category: all categories
Metatags: Canada, Community Activism, Komagata Maru, Pakistani, Toronto, Worker, Youth

Arsalan Samdani receiving a leadership award for Pakistan Development Fund (PDF)_image
Arsalan Samdani receiving a leadership award for Pakistan Development Fund (PDF)

Why did you move to Canada?

I moved to Canada to pursue undergraduate studies from a quality institute. I had acquired admission to the University of Toronto engineering program, and after considering a number of countries for further education, Canada seemed to be the best place for South Asian Immigrants in a post 9—11 world. The intention was to study in a country where I could see myself settling after graduating and therefore it was important that I chose a multicultural country like Canada.

There are a number of quality engineering universities in Pakistan, but the degrees are not equated with Canadian universities abroad. It took a while to convince my parents to support this decision as international student fees are almost triple domestic fees, but the idea was to recover the costs by working for reputable organizations internationally.

What was your experience moving here? What was your perception of Canada before you moved here? How did it change?

I always saw Canada in the context of North America. It didn’t seem much different from the United States, maybe a little more north, maybe a little colder. Everything I understood of this place came from the mainstream news, movies, any and all media outlets made available to me in Pakistan. I did however think of it as relatively neutral when it came to international events and conflicts.

In the summer of 2007, a year after my arrival in Canada, I had to seek blue-collar jobs to make ends meet. I worked at a number of factories and warehouses, with mostly immigrants of South Asian origin. As I saw employees working tirelessly for minimum wage, some working up to 2-3 shifts a day, I realized how life in even a country as developed as Canada can be a struggle for some.

As time went by, I started noticing the divisions in work force based on ethnicity. I would often come across immigrants who had been engineers, lawyers or even doctors in their home countries, but had to settle for blue collar jobs when they came here. My perception about Canada to be a flawless society was tainted.

I also started following Canadian politics, and I found Canadian foreign policy to be biased and unjust in many recent international events.  So overall my perceptions changed for the worse, but I do however respect Canadians for being relatively more accepting towards immigrants than most other countries.

What type of work have you done? What experiences led you to start Pakistan Development Fund (PDF)?

I was always involved in student groups at the University of Toronto. I had been a part of the Pakistan Students’ Federation (PSF) and the South Asian Development Council (SADC) prior to PDF. After closely watching student groups and the way they functioned, I always found myself unsatisfied for some reason or the other.

Most student groups on campus would spend most of their energy on organizing and hosting events. While this was great for students to acquire event planning experience, I saw little to no effort made towards learning about issues and encouraging discussions with the aim of reaching conclusions and potential solutions for issues that people face all over the world. Most debates and discussions were held on sensational topics, and the event planners had little interest in the event content, rather their sole aim seemed to be to achieve a full house.

I always thought that because of the frequent change in leadership (every 1-2 years) of most student groups, success was measured more in the short term, with little regard to commit to long term goals.

Besides my experience with student groups, some of my personal life experiences had a significant role to play. In October 2005 I witnessed one of the most severe earthquakes in Pakistan’s history. The earthquake killed approximately 75, 000 people, including a very close friend who was living in the only building that got demolished in Islamabad. It was concluded that the building did not meet the Government’s structural standards for buildings. This made me think that the 75,000 deaths could have easily been avoided, and therefore these deaths were not a result of a natural disaster, they were a result of mismanagement and negligence on the government’s part. That was when I developed an interest in learning about public policy and development.

Also, when I worked in factories and warehouses in the summer of 2007,

I was fortunate enough to be around people, even from Pakistan, who did not know my background (academic or financial) and would therefore not treat me differently. They treated me like one of their own, and that is when I realized how distant I had been from the masses in Pakistan because of my upper middle class upbringing. I was able to relate to their problems and could analyze issues from their lens.

It was such experiences that made me think that there was a need for people from different backgrounds to come together and discuss political issues on a continuous basis.

In the summer of 2010, I had discussed the idea of a transparent and efficient student group that would be committed toward learning about development and speaking for the marginalized peoples of Pakistan. Soon after, Pakistan was hit by one of the most devastating floods in its history that displaced more than 20 million people. On 6 August, 2010, I called an emergency meeting inviting all Pakistani students and student groups to come together and lay down a plan of action, which meant that we would work together towards a fundraising goal, and all our proceeds would go towards one organization that was collectively selected. Students volunteered to put together a series of events to raise over $5000/- in just over one week. This group of volunteers was to become PDF’s first team.

What does PDF do?

PDF is a student led initiative that aims to fight for the marginalized peoples of Pakistan. We host a wide variety of events that focus on issues related to development in Pakistan. PDF has chapters in four universities across the GTA. We aim to encourage the Pakistani diaspora in Canada to learn about development and get involved with grassroots initiatives. PDF stresses the importance of learning by hosting various academic sessions, hoping to bring people from different Pakistani backgrounds together to discuss the various issues in Pakistan.

Each chapter does their part to fundraise and the proceeds then go to an initiative that has been collectively decided upon prior to the fundraising taking place. The decision to go with one mutually decided upon initiative is to ensure that some sort of significant impact can be achieved - hoping to combine efforts to raise even more money. The criteria selection for choosing an initiative is based on how efficient and grassroots they are, and if they can achieve maximum impact. PDF chapters raise funds for that initiative for 4-6 months while simultaneously learning about the issues and encouraging discussion. PDF has very strict protocols and procedures to ensure events have the lowest overhead costs manageable and that each event is followed by a financial review that is then shared with all PDF members.

Another aspect of PDF is the monthly discussion forums wherein 2 members will take up a subject (ex. military in Pakistan), become “experts” on the subject by doing various research and reading academic journals, and then do a presentation in an attempt to teach the other members what they have learned. This method encourages a lot of debate and conversation because the upside of being taught by a peer means that the intimidation factor is removed.

PDF’s other goal is to ultimately become a pressure group in Pakistan. We are hoping to create a research team that will be there to respond when certain atrocities or catastrophes occur in Pakistan. We would like a team on the ground in Pakistan to help do the research, and finally come out with press releases to be widely circulated in every dialect to encourage more active participation by the citizens of Pakistan. The aim is to put the power back into the citizens hands.

All of this is the reason PDF exists. The aim is to have an efficient and transparent group inclusive to anybody who wants to join. We want to encourage an inclusive environment that is constantly trying to come to conclusions or come to some sort of political analysis over issues related to development in Pakistan. The difference between PDF and other groups is that there is not an annual change in leadership, with PDF we want our members to grow and progress within the group.

A lot of Pakistanis who come here are removed from Canadian politics and are more focused on issues back home, why do you think that is? How can we get more South Asian newcomers involved in Canadian issues?

I think a large part of the problem is lack of organization as a community. Should more concerted efforts be put toward organization then perhaps we would hear more from the South Asian community. You also have to remember that these individuals are coming from regions that are much more poverty stricken, and so their hometowns which are in a much worse off state would get priority in their minds. There is also the issue of a lack of political awareness which is not confined to the South Asian community, but a global issue really. There is a wide variety in terms of the backgrounds of the South Asians that come here. A lot of them who arrive here to study as international students come just to get the Canadian education and experience, with no intention to stay here beyond that. Canada becomes a temporary home for them and as such they do not take much of an interest in Canadian politics. Most of them are also unaware of Canadian history which makes it hard to understand the politics. Over here, they are immigrants, whereas in Pakistan/India/Bangladesh etc. they are not the minorities. The reason, in my opinion, that we have so many South Asians immigrating to Canada is to seek better standards of living, not to integrate with the culture as they don’t have much in common with the North American culture.

To encourage South Asians to become involved in Canadian politics, we need to form a united group that constantly engages in discussions and policy and to bring it into the mainstream. The situation for immigrants in Canada is a lot better than most countries in the world, but we still have a long way to go. We also need to see more representation of South Asians in the media and press, with their issues being voiced. An effort should also be made to politicize the youth by teaching them the political history of Canada as well as that of the South Asians in Canada.

When you learned about the Komagata Maru incident, how did you feel? Do you think things have things changed? How have they changed? 

I only recently learned about the Komagatu Maru incident through a friend, and after some more research discovered that there were debates occurring regarding whether or not the state should apologize for the incident. It saddened me to know discrimination was so openly accepted in those years. While such actions are not happening as openly as they used to, we still see that there is clear discrimination on the basis of colour, especially in the workforce.

I think it is high time we call a spade a spade and the record is set straight, the state should apologize for all such actions in the past. Only then will we be able to get past the discrimination that occurred and be able to say that humanity has progressed. We will know we are headed in the right direction when all races are openly accepted to become part of the society.

By not discussing these issues, we are only encouraging discrimination. Things have certainly changed in the sense that you do see people of colour and people of South Asian origin working, however one would have expected much more in 100 years. Only recently a survey proved that one third of all taxi drivers in Canada are overqualified South Asians. This proves that even though there is much more official acceptance in welcoming South Asian immigrants, there is a great deal of systemic discrimination left to deal with. The issue of recognizing degrees is a great one. How can it be acceptable for the Canadian government to welcome these people in with open arms and then refuse to recognize their professional degrees as legitimate, the very basis of their livelihoods. If the government wants to apologize for Komagata Maru, they should ensure they are not repeating mistakes. Allowing South Asians to enter the country but forcing them to only work certain jobs, much lower income jobs, is not much better than not allowing them to enter at all.

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