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I have a penchant for listening to other people's conversations and sometimes it pays off (other times it just makes me a nosy creep). 

It was 2019, and I was streetcar-ing it to OPC, probably producing something. I had spent hours in that office and building, from coordinating to producing and even eras in between, when I was relatively jobless or scheming short film ideas (and ways to beg/borrow/steal things to make them). Side note: The guys at OPC were incredibly supportive of my creative work, and I am forever grateful for their friendship. 


On the ride over, I heard voices of two women, who boarded and were seated behind me. I couldn't see their faces, so I could only really imagine what they looked like, which somehow made the memory more vivid. Two women, perhaps in their early thirties. I pictured them each carrying totes as they ran errands. 

Something at the beginning of the very slow and clunky conversation indicated that they knew each other from english school, and they were both obviously learning English as a second language. Their accents were wildly different, so they were forced to converse in the english they were just beginning to learn. In the streets. I could hear the trepidation and fear. 

-Are you here with your husband? 

-Mhmmm. Yes. He is here working. How about you? 

-My husband is in Iran, he is coming here soon. 

A Chinese girl and an Iranian girl who are classmates have an unplanned run-in on the ttc. Both are new to the country, the language and one another. 

-How -- are --  you?

I could tell that's not what she wanted to say. It was just the closest phrase she knew to the thing she wanted to say. And at that time in their lives, with the limited language they had available, it didn't seem like enough. You could tell from the inflection she was annoyed she couldn't express more.

They both laugh, because they're probably both nervous and stressed and tired and they both get it. 

-Good. And you? 


There's a pause to breathe. Because this is a lot to process already. 

-Chinese Girl: Do you .. like Canada? 

There was a silence. I craned to hear the answer and worried that the Iranian girl was giving a nonverbal response and I may never know the answer and there I would be left hanging, professional eavesdropper, on a cliffhanger. 

But then - 

-Iranian Girl: Nooo. 

It was such a genuine response. Like it took no thought. Like both a completely sincere admission and an impulsive gut response that couldn't be helped but uttered. It caught all of us by surprise, I think (yes I have included myself in this narrative now, I was invested). 

Then -- 

They both start to giggle, like they're really truly in on something together. 


-Chinese Girl: Me neither. 


I thought about that very short, very broken ESL conversation a lot.

There was so much warmth in that interaction, and over years of speaking to my family members around the world, I've grappled with the oft-known truth that Canada is supposed to be the land of opportunity; everyone is supposed to want to be here, it's a land of richness, and after all, Canadians are the nicest people in the developed world


I frequently go back to the conversation I heard that day with the two girls on the streetcar because it was so sincere. Not everyone wants to be here, even I don't sometimes. Not everyone is grateful that they've come to the land of opportunity when their lives back home have been torn apart. We're still people; lonely and confused and for a while struggling to express the simplest things. It changes who you are to lose your language. Not to mention how chilly Canada can be - both climate and culture. 

I had an amazing French teacher for a while-- a girl in Strasbourg who was actually originally Iranian. She was a language wizard, and had moved to France only 7 years prior with zero french, managing to not only become fluent but also become a French teacher at a good college. She told me once: For the first two years after I moved to France, I was not myself because I could not make a joke. I am a funny person, but I had not yet developed my humour in french and I was miserable. 

So then it's October 2022, and I connect with CICS. I want to somehow show something - anything that showcased immigrant life today. Not the kind of immigrant life we imagined as default, the refugees in Time Magazine, and this glorified idea that "it's so brave you did that!" or whatever it is that people think about the Canadian immigration experiences. To be honest, I feared that people didn't think much of the Canadian immigration experience to begin with. People end up here and they are our drivers and nurses and pizza shop owners, but how did they get there and what happened? Who knows. 


Nicole at CICS introduced me to all these people - she didn't know what I'm looking for, and I didn't know what was looking for, but we kept the convo going while I learned about what settlement agencies do. Nicole kept asking, what do you need? What are you looking for? And I kept saying, I don't know, I just want to see what you do here!


So she introduces me to Teddy, a chef who came to Canada in '84, just before my parents. He opened his own bakery business in the 90's making these gorgeous cakes with western graphics (Bart Simpson for one) on Chinese style fluffy cakes. The business didn't last, but Teddy was resilient and flexible and learned (he had to be). Now he has a catering business, teaches cooking workshops to the community and delivered meals to the elderly during COVID. That's kind of how it seemed to go down at CICS. A lot of people working a lot, very hard, all the time. 

I met three women, who were surprisingly not immigrants, but white Canadian women, who had volunteered their time to connect with me for research on this project. They described waiting in line at food banks, about illness, violence, being a woman under the poverty line in Canada, and finding a home. They told me they loved CICS because they were the most fair and generous with their food and supplies. Other food banks showed preferential treatment, were more dangerous places with aggressive clientele who suffered from mental health challenges, and often, you didn't feel safe waiting outside for your hamper. Lots more stories came out over this time. 

We ended up writing a script that told the story of some of the big things that happened over the 55 years at CICS. The old makeshift office that college students put together in Chinatown to provide translation services for new immigrants. (industrious, smart, impressive!) The youth programs, the food bank, the people who made this place what it is today. And the coolest part was that we got to feature so many of those people, in the flesh, because they wanted to help. So this was the first time I directed dozens of non actors, real people, with varying levels of english, with little experience on camera, and they all shone. 

So there was more than enough to make this piece. I'm sad I couldn't shoot three more spots at the time, we had so many ideas. But most importantly, we did something together and I think I needed to always remember why these things matter so much. 

“Celebrating 55 Years” | CICS

Production Company Merchant

Executive Producer Farrah Khaled

Executive Producer Ian Webb

Executive Producer Hayley Taylor

Director Sara Jade Alfaro
Producers Colin Walker & Maryna Petrenko
1AD Peter Widdrington

2AD Shima K Marand
Production Manager Tyler Klementti
Director of Photography Grant Cooper

MOCO Operator Vlad Litvak

1AC Eric Schweiger
Gaffer David Grif
Key Grip Timur Aliev
Swing Max Medvediev

Sound Recordist Tristan Walsh

Make Up Artist Samantha Ryan
Wardrobe Stylist Bailey Scheepers

Production Designer Nathan Rideout
Set Dresser Agathe Salzmann

Set Dresser Yana Malick

Creative Development & Research Assistant Yasmin Evering-Kerr

Editor Warren Goodwin

Colourist Clinton Homuth @ Artjail

Producer Alison Maxwell

Assistant Colourist Austin Tang

Sound Engineer David Worthen @ Vapor Music

Voice Over by Trinity Lloyd


On Screen Talent

Kevin Lee, Chris Li, Erica Tan, Angela Wu, Ryan Chan, Casey Xu, Cayden Xu, Cyrus Xu, Odelia Zhang, Belle Du, Vajira Jayasinghe, Thomas Lau, Souhila Ouari, Tony Shum, Kitty Tong, Iryna Honcharuk, Teddy Luen, Nour Aleid, Zein Aleid, Dahouk Badawi Khamis, Dahouk Harami, Huzifa Harami, Mirna Harami, Rajaei Harami, Yahya Harami, Alaa Alrewishdi, Mabel Chow, Nasrin Ghafoori, Emily Lai, Reshma Lakdawalla, Ruth Lee, Sundus Meer, Mark Min, Alan Yim, Celina Zhu

Shantia Cross, Fariba Dehghani, Rose Maldonado, Davis Myers, Donna Myers, Deanna Wiley, Jono Williamson, Stephanie Wong Ken

Special Thanks to Merchant & Ontario Camera

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