'E' is for empowerment 

Squamish South Asian Seniors Women's Program making a difference


For all the years she worked at a Squamish laundromat, Jagdev Dhaliwal had to plead with her coworkers to tell her what the tags on the clothes said.

In English, to Dhaliwal the words were just a jumble of symbols. Everyday she worried about getting help to understand them as the words explained which hotel each piece of clothing came from.

Then, someone introduced her to the South Asian Seniors Women's Program run by Gurjit Johal and Robin Garland.

The program gave her a tool of empowerment: the English alphabet. It took time to learn the letters, but slowly Dhaliwal started sorting out the laundry from hotels without bothering her co-workers. Now she knows the laundry marked AAVA hotel in Whistler has three A's and one V.

Such snippets of empowerment - a job secured, labels understood at grocery stores or at work - are what keep Johal and Garland committed to the program, despite ongoing funding challenges.

But teaching English to senior South Asian women isn't the program's only goal. For the 15 women that attend it, the program opens a window to the town, the province, even the country.

Besides the two-hour English speaking and learning sessions, those who attend the program also get to see the region. Last year, they went to Nanaimo, a ferry ride that was a first for many women.

Recently, they also visited the RCMP station, an unsettling experience for some women, as it's considered inappropriate for women to visit police stations in rural India.

"You could see the unease, but they broke down a barrier," said Johal. "Now, if they ever have to speak to a police officer again, it will be less intimidating."

All the participants are from the rural parts of North India's Punjab Province. And almost all of them, Johal said, experience intense cultural shock when they move to Canada. No shared language and culture, a sudden loss of community and a cloistered lifestyle (many serve as primary caregivers at home) can engender isolation, depression and fear.

"Living in an Indian village is like living in one big family," says Robin Garland, who recently visited that country with one of the participants, Malkeet Hayer.

"Then they are here and it's cold and pouring (rain) and that community feeling is gone and if you don't speak English, it can be quite isolating."

Adjusting to a new country can be a tough process for most immigrants, but seniors feel cultural alienation most acutely. A 2003 study done by a University of Alberta professor, Herbert C. Northcott, is telling.

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