Refugees, community engagement, and Sarvodaya

By Stephanie Bertolo, Vice Chair, Young Canadians Roundtable on Health

On October 1st, Hamilton, Ontario celebrated the 24th Annual Gandhi Peace Festival. I was pleased to coordinate the event along with a committee of McMaster professors and community members. The theme this year was “Refugees and Sarvodaya.” Sarvodaya is Gandhi’s principle of “universal uplift” or “the progress of all.”

In a country built on immigration that prides itself in its mosaic of cultures, the event was a celebration of the newcomers to the country. From raising money to privately sponsor a family to coordinating services to aid newcomers, the citizens of the Hamilton community have come together to support its newest members. With refugees coming from a place of destruction, Hamiltonians want to help them build a better life here in Canada.

However, the day was also a call for the government to do better. Keynote speaker, Nora Melara-Lopez, social worker and coordinator of the emergency support committee for refugees at the North Hamilton Community Health Centre, called upon the federal government to do more. The lack of mental health supports, delays in family reunification, and racism from some Canadians are all negatively impacting refugees’ health. It is not enough to provide the refugees with an environment free of war. Canadians must guarantee that they have the resources that will allow them to thrive.

In addition to speakers, there were a number of cultural performances that highlighted the rich diversity of Canada. This included Colombian dancers from the Colombian Refugee Association based in Hamilton, a classical Indian dance by a talented McMaster student, and a musical performance by Kojo “Easy” Damptey who immigrated to Canada from Ghana. The award winning Hamilton Youth Poets also performed a number of moving poems, highlighting the great talent with in the city. Following was a peace march around the downtown core, where attendees raised awareness of the continual need to work towards peace. Finally, guests were invited to indulge in a free Indian meal. Several community groups were also in attendance to show what supports they could offer to newcomers. The large number truly highlighted Hamilton’s desire to make meaningful change.

Overall, the event was a success with more than a hundred attendees. It garnered a great amount of attention both before and after the day, and was featured in a number of local newspapers and discussed on the radio.

Planning the festival was certainly an exciting challenge for me. It was my desire to make a difference in my community that motivated me to try and exceed all expectations.  I was so thrilled to see our hard work pay off! 

About the Author

Stephanie Bertolo is from Hamilton, Ontario and currently studying Arts and Science at McMaster University.  Stephanie's passion for health and community drives her work with the YCRH, the Hamilton Community Foundation and several groups on McMaster’s campus.