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Vancouver's diasporas promote development around the world

It is an understatement to call Vancouver a diverse city. Take a ride on the Skytrain during peak hours and you are likely to overhear conversations in four or five different languages. Explore the city’s restaurants and you can sample cuisines from around the globe. Cruise the summer festival scene and you will experience cultural delights from every continent. It is undeniably the case that the cultural milieu of our city draws substance from as many regions of the world as there are seats in the UN assembly.

As residents of this pluralistic metropolis we can easily recognize the contribution that the diaspora­­ have made to our city’s development. What is less obvious, however, is the contribution that members of the diaspora make to development around the world. One of the objectives of Engaging Diasporas in Development Project is to identify and highlight diaspora involvement with international development. This effort is already turning up some remarkable stories:

Dr. Muhammad Iqbal–an Emeritus Professor at UBC–was born in a Pakistani village. Over more than a decade, he and his wife have worked tirelessly to promote health and education in Pakistan through the Maria-Helena Foundation, which they established. Their first major success came when Dr. Iqbal offered life-long financial support to his sister in exchange for the donation of their family home. He then converted the home in to an outpatient hospital. Dr. Iqbal’s Maria-Helena Foundation subsequently established 11 self-sustaining co-ed primary schools and three vocational schools in Pakistan.           

Another UBC Professor, Dr. Shafique Pirani, was visiting his childhood home in Uganda when he became aware of large-scale tragedy of clubfoot: a debilitating congenital defect that affects 1 in 1000 children worldwide. Dr. Pirani set out to adapt therapeutic corrective treatments for clubfoot to the local context and initiated a program that revamped the Ugandan health care system’s approach to the disease. His project has become a model for several other countries around the world.

The Surrey-based organization Umoja, headed up by Ugandan-born couple Amos and Edith Kambere, has partnered with the Surrey Pacific Academy, the Dunamis Education Society and an NGO in Uganda to establish an elementary school in that country. In addition to helping establish this school, Umoja has helped other members of the diaspora engage with development in their countries of origin. They recently assisted a Vancouverite of Kenyan origin who returned to his home region and constructed a well providing water for an entire village. This project was completed at the surprisingly low cost of $2500.

Village wells, like this one in Mozambique, are vitally important to the health and quality of life of hundreds of millions of the world's impoverished people. Photo: Douglas Olthof     

Also in Uganda, sisters Nasra and Hawa Mire have, over the past four years, operated educational programs for young people that focus on expression and story telling through digital media. The sisters, who emigrated from Somalia to Vancouver while in their early teens, established Point Youth Media to engage with young people in Vancouver and in East Africa. They plan to expand their programs into Tanzania, Kenya and hopefully one day into Somalia as well.

Diaspora contributions to development are not exclusively of the philanthropic variety. Members of the diaspora also promote development overseas through trade and investment. Vancouver’s SUCCESS (a non-profit multi-service organization with strong historical ties to the Chinese community) has worked to facilitate Canadian trade and investment with East Asian countries in order to promote economic development both here and overseas. Diaspora investment in East Asian economies has made an important contribution to their rapid growth, which has in turn been instrumental in lifting unprecedentedly large numbers of people out of poverty.

Villages like this one north of Beijing linger in poverty despite incredible growth occurring elsewhere in the Chinese economy. Photo: Douglas Olthof

Development within the diaspora here in Vancouver can also affect development overseas. Along with a few colleagues, a young woman of Afghan origin named Hila Wesa has established B.C. Young Afghans, an organization that aims to help young Afghan immigrants achieve success in education. Like many others, Ms. Wesa has observed how divisions that exist in the country of origin can reproduce themselves within the diaspora. By overcoming these cleavages within the diaspora, Ms. Wesa hopes to contribute to the promotion of peace in Afghanistan.

Similarly, for new Canadians, achieving success here in Vancouver can be a precondition for promoting development overseas. Latincouver is an organization that promotes networking amongst Canadians of Latin American heritage and others interested in Latin America. The organization’s founder, Paola Vivian Murillo, highlights the importance of mesadas: money remitted from members of the diaspora back to their families in the country of origin. Her organization works to help Latin American immigrants to Canada succeed here, thus provinding them with an opportunity to give back to their country of origin.

These stories represent a small sample of the myriad ways in which members of the diaspora in Vancouver engage with development around the world. As Vancouverites we all benefit from the manifold cultural influences that characterize our city. These cultural influences come to us by and large through the numerous and varied diaspora groups that make up such a significant part of our community. At the same time, we may overlook the roles that members of the diaspora play in promoting development overseas.

When we begin to recognize the important knowledge and skills that members of the diaspora bring to the table we might also begin to ask ourselves how we, as a city and as a nation, might better make use of that knowledge and those skills to promote development in all the places with which people in Vancouver are connected. That is to say, everywhere.


This blog is part of a series related to a public dialogue series called Engaging Diaspora in Development: Tapping Our Translocal Potential for Change, at Simon Fraser University. Further information can be found here.

More in Engaging Diasporas

Seven years in waiting: Canadian immigrants hoping to reunite with relatives sooner

Families talk of suffering as they wait for reunification.

Eyes healed by Ayurvedic treatment

Ayurvedic eye treatment helped Ashok Puri improve his eyesight after Western doctors declared his condition 'untreatable.'

Diasporas and global health

Professor James Busumtwi-sam outlines key issues in global health with reference to the UN's Millennium Development Goals.
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