Tourist vs. immigrant: A change in perspective | Alexandar Pavlov

By Alexandar Pavlov

Law360 Canada (August 30, 2022, 10:37 AM EDT) --
Alexandar Pavlov
Shelter workers in Ontario have a unique job. I never dreamed, as a lawyer in Bulgaria, that my occupation would someday lead me to the shelters and to the social institutions in this province, providing support for vulnerable people. Life, however, has given me this opportunity.

I have spent the last eight months working in shelters for the homeless. My current job is in a congregate setting where approximately 80 people who have been experiencing homelessness are living together. There, they face the harsh realities of drug addictions and mental health issues.

My job description is that of supportive housing worker which resembles, at times, the combined disciplines of lawyer, social worker, psychologist and counsellor. I have recently gained a lot of new and unique experience and insights.

I visited Canada for the first time in 1996. My wife grew up in St. Clements, a town near Waterloo in southern Ontario. In 1996, Canada looked much different than it is now. At that time, Canada was a different world compared to Bulgaria. I was deeply impressed by the high living standard, the rule of law and order and the modern outlook of the country. I witnessed all of this during my first and subsequent visits to Canada. Bulgaria, itself, was in deep economic and social crisis and, due to the short time of my visit, I was not able to discern the social contrasts in Canada and the hidden inequality.

When we decided to move to Canada much later, in 2014, I didn’t have much exposure to the social trends in the country until I started with volunteer activities. A tourist’s perspective is much different from the immigrant’s perspective. And my impressions were completely different. In the first years, my mind was completely occupied with hedonistic and idealistic perceptions of Canada as a rich country with a lot of opportunities for a decent life and the restart of my professional career. The positive social background with so much politeness and friendly people was also very impressive. Canada was so different at that time!

Now, at the start of 2022, I understand that Canadian society has many different, deeper layers. I don’t think that many Canadians understand that. Life now is very different compared to 26 years ago when I visited Canada for first time. What I witnessed in 2014 is much different from what I see now. Life has shown me a very different part of society. The public doesn’t see this picture from the expensive, glossy immigration brochures praising the benefits of moving to this country. While working at community shelters, I have witnessed not only pain, misery, overdoses and enormous suffering but also heroism, love and idealism. Here, I have met wonderful people, dedicated to making a change in the lives of others.

Every weekday I bike to work near the local park. My commute is short — it is just 15 minutes. Upon arrival, I often see people nodding on the ground in front and around the building which is a reason for concern for me because possibly they have overdosed. I try to assess whether they are breathing and whether they show other signs of life. One of the most relieving signs is when they say something to me, even if it is something not so polite.

This scene has been repeated many times in front of the building. They usually take their drugs in public places or in the washrooms or in the corridors, and they try to attract the attention of the other residents and the staff in order to get help if necessary.

Living on the streets is hard, very hard. During my work as supportive housing worker I met with various people from all walks of life. Some of them have been on the streets for many years, even for a decade. The homeless community which has many problems ironically created some kind of collective immunity and a pattern for protection. If someone overdoses everyone who is at the scene comes to help regardless of previous fights, thefts, feuds and other problems. This is pretty amazing and shows the hidden moral potential and the noble human nature of every person even the most challenged one.

To serve and to protect: it is difficult but inspiring work.

Alexandar Pavlov is a supportive housing worker in transitional housing in Kitchener, Ont. Before immigrating to Canada in 2015, he graduated with a master of law degree from Sofia University and became a lawyer in 1994. Between 1998 and 2014 he was a notary public in Bulgaria. He is currently working on a project about providing legal information to marginalized people and helping them practise peer-to-peer training.

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