Ali Mohamud on the Opening Doors Project in Toronto Initiated in 2009 by the Toronto branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association, The Opening Doors Project is a Train-the-Trainer project designed to promote strengthened participation of immigrants and refugees in civil society. It does this by offering skills and work experience to newcomers living with mental health issues. These individuals are called Peer Trainers and lead workshops about anti-racism/anti-discrimination within host and newcomer communities. The Project consists of 10 activity-based workshops on mental health, stigma, anti-discrimination/anti-racism and settlement experiences and stresses. The workshops are delivered by Peer Trainers in organizations, institutions and communities throughout Toronto and a variety of cities across Ontario. As of March 2012, Peer Trainers have facilitated 463 workshops with 5,929 participants in 30 cities across Ontario. These workshops challenge the stigma surrounding mental health and mental illness. They explore the diverse struggles many immigrants face and speak to strategies for dealing with racism and other forms of discrimination that affect individuals and communities. As one of the Peer Trainers on the project, I am sharing my own journey through recovery. This is a journey that I draw from when I facilitate workshops. This journey starts in Somalia. I was eight years old and my family fled the horrors of a war. Not long after our arrival at a refugee camp in Holland, we were relocated to a house of our own in a small town near the German border. In this town we were the only family of colour and I experienced my first taste of racism. For the first time in my young life, I discovered the painful lesson of what it was to be black. Back home in Somalia the question of race and colour had not come up—I had been just another face in the crowd. In Holland it mattered and it was hurtful and I was trying to find ways to survive it. As I was getting adjusted to life in Holland, we took flight once more. In Canada I was an immigrant all over again but this time as teenager. The burden of having to learn a new language and adjust to a new culture is hard enough for any young newcomer and dealing with the stress of puberty was exasperated by an unwanted discovery—the frightening realization that I was attracted to the same sex. I say frightening because of the homophobia I faced both at home and at school. I used to hate hearing the sing-song whispers of “faggot, faggot!” at school. It did not matter to me that I’d never heard of the word before coming to Canada; what mattered to me was that this newest of labels instilled the same fear and shame I’d come to associate with the “N” word, that older and all-too familiar daily reminder of my difference and undesirability. I don’t know the exact moment when I lost the will to live, but I do know that I felt increasingly and overwhelming isolated. I felt so hopeless that I tried to overdose on sleeping pills when I was in my final year of high school. My limbs felt heavy, my thoughts felt sluggish, and a sort of paralysis enveloped my body. Just as I was beginning to fade away, slipping ever deeper down a dark and all-encompassing hole, I recovered something precious—the will to live. I thought of my family. I thought of my mother, whom I love the most in the world. I thought of all that I had to live for, all that I hoped I would accomplish. Suddenly I found the strength to call out for my brother. And somehow, he heard my call. I got lucky. I found what I was looking for and found my way out of the rabbit hole. I started my journey to recovery—living well in the presence of my mental illness—on the night I chose life in the face of death. Being alive, however, is not the same as living life. I started to live actively when I embraced a holistic approach to wellness. I started to pay attention to the interconnectedness of my physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of self. Working is part of my living. Working as a Peer Trainer for The Opening Doors Project makes use of my lived experience with recovery, migration and mental health challenges. This means that what I have lived through makes me a valuable source of info on immigrating and mental health issues. Being an effective Peer Trainer requires me to embrace the lessons learned from my painful experiences with migration and discrimination. I embrace my strengths: empathy in relating effectively to others, resilience in the face of my ongoing challenges with depression and anxiety, the ability to communicate effectively with others, a firm commitment to anti-racism and anti-oppression, as well as a holistic-centered approach to mental health. Because my lived experience is valued at work, I feel I have dignity. Facilitating the workshops throughout the province makes me feel a though I am part of society, and this helps me to move forward.
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