Justice After Death

The Office of the Chief Coroner plays a vital role in Ontario.

By Brittany Ramgolam | Featured image via iStock

On December 13, 2017, 25-year-old Ali Zaraeeneh entered an RBC in Vaughan, Ontario brandishing a handgun. He took more than a dozen bank staff and customers hostage in a terrifying ordeal that lasted an hour. Emergency Response Unit officers, an armoured vehicle and a helicopter surrounded the bank as negotiators responded to the incident. After Zaraeeneh refused to comply with an order from York Regional Police to surrender, he was fatally shot. Officers said they were forced to use lethal force to ensure the safety of the hostages.

It was revealed after the fact that Zaraeeneh suffered from mental health problems.

The police were cleared of any wrongdoing in relation to the young man’s death; however, under Ontario’s Coroners Act, a mandatory inquest was convened. The five-day hearing wasn’t held until July 26, 2021, at which time a jury was asked to propose what recommendations, if any, could be adopted to prevent a similar fatal shooting of a person with mental health issues in the future.

Toronto’s Office of the Chief Coroner has a mandate to research unusual deaths, workplace accidents and police abuses through inquests. They make sure that, “No death will be overlooked, concealed, or ignored,” according to the mission statement on their website. The Chief Coroner Office’s goal is to impact Ontario laws by evaluating past events and recommending solutions for the future. It’s an important service that few Ontarians likely know about.

However, there has long been public interest in what a coroner’s job entails. In 1966, CBC launched a TV program called Wojek, that featured a crusading coroner (played by John Vernon) of that name. It was one of the network’s highest-rated programs at the time. Between 1976 and 1983, Quincy M.E. starring Jack Klugman, aired on NBC. The main character was a forensic pathologist who helped the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office solve crimes.

The CBC has a new program, Coroner, which has been running since 2019. It follows a coroner who investigates suspicious, unnatural or sudden deaths in Toronto, which is as close to Dr. Dirk Huyer’s reality as it can get.

Huyer has served as the Chief Coroner of Ontario since July 2013. In 2019, just as the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, a new member joined Huyer’s team. Seconded from the Toronto Police service, Kristopher Somwaru, then 38, was assigned to provide support.

Somwaru was born into a strict household in Georgetown, Guyana, the capital of the small country located north of Brazil, on December 8, 1980. Early on, he learned to take life’s responsibilities seriously. “I made sure my brother got to and from school and had food. It was part of the culture at the time in Guyana,” Somwaru says. “Around age 11 or 12, I realized I had to grow up faster than most.”

After he immigrated to Canada with his family in 1995, his maturity served him well as he went through school, eventually joining the Toronto Police Service, and then the coroner’s office, in 2005.

Somwaru works under Prabhu Rajan, who is chief counsel to the Chief Coroner, and one of his trusted lawyers. Rajan attended the University of Manitoba in 1991 and received his degree in Criminology. After graduating, he went to Osgoode Law School at York University in 1994.

“What Somwaru does is incredibly important work. He contributes to society and helps make real change happen,” says Rajan. “It does not always work out, but you can’t give up, you have to keep trying.”

It takes a strong personality to work at the Office of the Chief Coroner. “[Somwaru] sees it to the end, and always has a plan to get there,” says Constable Lee Rinkoff, who currently works with Somwaru.

Two types of inquests can be held: discretionary and mandatory. “A discretionary inquest is when a committee comes together to decide whether to look at death or not,” says Rinkoff. “Usually, doctors bring [discretionary cases] to our attention.”

A mandatory inquest, on the other hand, is held when someone dies as a result of police involvement or in a workplace. Settings may involve the Ministry of Labour, correction facilities or similar locations.

The process of an inquest is as follows:

1. Death occurs and legal proceedings happen unrelated to the Office of the Chief Coroner.

2. A case is brought to the attention of the Office of the Chief Coroner. A team is assembled to review whether it is mandatory or discretionary.

3. Once the case is opened, constables like Somwaru are responsible for creating a timeline of the event and gathering all necessary evidence and information. Somwaru and his colleagues are tasked to read and analyze all documents, files, databases and media related to the case.

4. Before its formation, the jury must go through a questionnaire to ensure they have no biases towards the case.

5. The lawyer in charge of holding the inquest then reviews the information presented by the police constables. That crucial information is shared with a jury in a courtroom.

6. After the hearing, the jury comes up with recommendations that they assess might prevent a similar occurrence taking place.

A recent case involved 19-year-old Quinn MacDougall, who was killed on April 3, 2018 by an undercover police officer dispatched to protect him. The Hamilton teen called 911 in a state of panic after receiving multiple death threats through Snapchat that same day. He faced mental health issues and suffered from paranoia. When MacDougall noticed a man dressed in all black outside his house observing him, his fears took over and he picked up a weapon. MacDougall gripped a 6-inch knife and charged the undercover officer, Constable Marcello Filice.

The officer instinctively reached for his gun and shot the boy, who later died in the hospital. Filice did not face any consequences for his actions, as they were deemed to have been in self-defence.

An inquest into the MacDougall case started on February 28, 2022. The evidence gathered by Somwaru for the prosecution sought to present the mistakes made by the Hamilton Police Service. After the inquest, the jury made numerous recommendations that could prevent situations like these in the future, especially in respect to how police interactions with people dealing with mental health issues could be improved.

Many Chief Coroner cases involve mental health issues. A tricky topic, but one Somwaru is not afraid to touch upon. “It’s a crisis and society doesn’t have a handle on it,” he says. When asked what could be done, he thinks for a minute: “That’s the million-dollar question.”

Many things can affect someone’s mental health, like losing a child or your husband raping you. In the early 2000s, a woman experienced both those things. Her husband assaulted her not long after her daughter’s death. Somwaru was first to arrive after the 911 call, and she was mentally distraught and considered taking her life. Somwaru took the victim aside and assured her that her mental health was his utmost priority. She later thanked him, admitting his thoughtfulness had stopped her from committing suicide.

Another case is of note: In 1995, Jeffrey Arenburg murdered Brian Smith, a former hockey player and notable TV sportscaster, because Arenburg was having schizophrenic episodes in which he believed broadcast towers were projecting directly into his head. He thought the only way to stop it was to murder the speaker, Smith. This tragedy started an inquest that led to a major change in Ontario law. Bill 68, otherwise known as “Brian’s law,” put Community Treatment Orders, or CTOs, into place. In Ontario, patients may be subject to this if they meet criteria defining them as unable to understand the consequences of their decisions.

Today, every province in Canada has a CTO law or equivalent, with the exception of New Brunswick.

The Arenburg case can be considered the first in a slew of mental health-related inquests the Office of the Chief Coroner has held. “If we all agree that the system needs fixing, a logical starting point, to me, is to define the act,” says Dr. James Young, who was in charge of the 2000 inquest.

“Addressing mental health issues in our society is a complex matter and much work remains in improving the lives of those dealing with mental health issues,” says Rajan.

Varied Matters

At the Office of the Chief Coroner every case is different, so the steps and outcomes will always vary from one another.

In 2017, for example, the hostage situation case involving Zaraeeneh, 25, was important given its uniqueness. The young man held people hostage inside an RBC. At that point, the man had been struggling with mental health disorders for years. With the police’s proper training in hostage scenarios or with mentally ill persons, the outcome could have been different. In fact, the inquest deemed the death unnecessary.

In this case, no legislative changes have been made yet. However, the jury has suggested hospitals and general practitioners work together to better support these conditions, according to the Ministry of the Solicitor General’s website. “Family physicians [should] enhance their awareness of community resources available to assist families struggling to support a loved one who is experiencing mental health challenges.”

By August 3, 2021, the jury had made a total of six recommendations to the Ontario College of Family Physicians and two recommendations to the Ontario Hospital Association.

The jury also said that, “Family physicians facilitate access to assertive multidisciplinary mental health outreach teams for people experiencing, or at great risk of experiencing, their first episode of psychotic symptoms.”

Inquests are established primarily to recommend solutions that might prevent similar tragedies occurring in the future. The workload is heavy, and no case is the same. The Office of the Chief Coroner does its part to make changes, but the rest is up to the politicians. Change sometimes occurs but it often takes considerable time and sometimes it doesn’t happen at all.

Freelance writer Brittany Ramgolam can be reached at ramgolambrittany@gmail.com.

Who Will Teach Our Future Generations?

Online school accelerated the use of technology in elementary schools. But now that students are back to in-person learning, then why has the extra screen time remained in place?

By Sameen Qazi | Featured image via iStock

Upon first glance, Anthi Scarafile’s second-grade room looks like any other elementary school classroom over the years. It’s full of bright colours, art hanging on walls, and large lesson boards taking up the rest of the space. Upon closer inspection, however, the changes lie in the excess grey in the room, bleeding away from the bright colours splashed over the rest of the space like a rainbow in the process of fading away.  

Anthi Scarafile, a tall brunette in her early 40s, has shoulder length hair as straight as the way she sits in her chair, her shoulders relaxed, and a confident smile playing on her lips. Being a married mother of two young girls, it makes it easy to understand her confidence in her role as a second-grade teacher at Brandon Gate Public School – an elementary school in Mississauga, Ontario, and her workplace for the last 14 years. 

Thanks to the pandemic, Scarafile’s classroom is cluttered with technology that wasn’t there before. Though it was necessary, online school accelerated the use of technology in elementary schools. But now that students are back to in-person learning, the question remains as to why the extra screen time stayed.  

Brain development and educational research suggests that screens should be used wisely when it comes to younger children, but elementary students are now using devices for most of their classes; typing instead of writing, and searching answers on Google instead of combing through a book. The education system has largely changed over the years due to technology, and it is still unsure whether that is an asset or a liability. 

According to a recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, an American non-profit organization that focuses on major health care issues facing the nation, the average 8- to 10-year-old spends nearly 8 hours a day with a variety of different media, while older children and teenagers spend up to (or more than) 11 hours per day. Schools have embraced the shift to technology as well, with reports showing that 63 percent of K–12 teachers use technology in their classrooms everyday.  

“Technology has definitely been something that I’m working on. Just like technology is evolving, I’m evolving as a teacher all the time, learning new technology,” Scarafile says. Despite being a teacher for 21 years, her teaching style is constantly changing and shifting. Not wanting to remain stagnant, after completing the mandatory 5 Additional Qualification Courses (AQ Courses) required for elementary teachers, she has paid for 11 additional ones out of her own pocket.  

“That’s my own learning,” she says. “I want to be able to speak to people and say ‘Yeah, I’ve done that!’ I’m learning about this, and it’s a lot of professional development as well.” 

Teacher Librarians Play Essential Role 

Each year, all teachers in Ontario are legally required to prepare an Annual Learning Plan (ALP). The purpose of the ALP is to provide a space for teachers to write down their goals for the school year and what they want to learn about. One thing Scarafile never forgets to jot down each year is “computers and all things technology.” She credits her success and comfort level with the increasing technology in her classroom to Megan Roach, the teacher librarian at Brandon Gate Public School.  

Teacher librarians can play a vital role in facilitating learning with technology in schools. Roach’s librarian duties include, but aren’t limited to: developing a love of reading in students, growing literacy skills using fiction and non-fiction materials, building computer skills for students to become independent, thoughtful, and critical researchers, and giving access to programs, resources, and integrated technologies. 

This year, more schools are transforming their school library into a learning commons that integrates technology with the traditional library. The library is now a collaborative space where classes can access school-wide resources such as robotics kits, specialized software, and computer labs. 

“These kids learn so quickly. If I’m introducing a new app or educational website to them in one of our library sessions, they light up. By the end of the period, they’re masters. It’s fascinating, but it’s also frightening because especially after the pandemic, these second-graders are now more comfortable clicking away on computers than they are at writing with paper and pencils,” Roach says.  

Data released by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that provides parents with entertainment and technology guidance, revealed that the pandemic sent an estimated 1.5 billion children around the globe home by the end of April 2020. Being stuck at home has made children spend excessive time in front of screens, from TVs to smartphones to tablets. According to Qustodio, a software developer that allows parents to supervise their child’s messages and social media posts, online activity on children’s devices doubled in the early days of the pandemic.  

The World Health Organization released a study in 2019 detailing that the overuse of devices by young children causes them to become overstimulated. This lowers their attention span and has a negative impact on reading comprehension, working memory, and has been proven to increase psychological problems as well. 

Scarafile also noticed a shift in the reading and writing comprehension her students demonstrated after learning remotely. “Digital teaching became the way of teaching for the next two years. Many children in my grade 2 class have a hard time writing now because they became so used to typing. The kids I had in grade 2 are now in grade 4, and some of them are still not reading and writing. So it’s really affected these kids,” she says. 

Some teachers also fear that computers could replace them in the classroom. The rise of the internet and the easy access to information has now made it possible for students to use technology to answer any question they may have. This access to knowledge that is essentially at their fingertips can make many question the need for a full-time teacher in the classroom. 

Trying to get her students to think critically, Scarafile showed them a video of robotic servers in the restaurant chain, Denny’s. She then asked the kids, “Who does this affect?” and they immediately got it. It’s the people who are supposed to be working who will be the most affected. She asked her students afterwards, “Is Mrs. Scarafile going to be replaced by computers?” They were laughing and giggling at the question, not understanding the enormity of what a world without teachers will look like.  

When it comes to technology in the classroom, it seems that Scarafile’s way of teaching means she does her best to provide a balance. She likes to read physical books to them with expressions, stopping at parts of the story and getting them to think. Her dedication to her role as a teacher for these young kids navigating a newly opened up world is more than admirable.  

“Yes, technology is good, but I do think there needs to be moderation. In grade 2 classrooms, I think we have a good balance,” Scarafile says. “We still have technology, but they’re still learning to read and write, and I think that’s important.” 

Freelance writer Sameen Qazi can be reached at sameen.qazi25@gmail.com. 

The Cure For Islamophobia

Although Islamophobia is a real concern in Canada, there are also many instances of
acceptance and integration.

By Ibrahim Parkar | Featured image via iStock

Bouquets of flowers and tealight candles dressed the concrete sidewalk of a street in London,
Ontario following the June 2020 killing of four members of a Muslim family. The perpetrator of the attack was “motivated by anti-Muslim hate” according to London police. Their lives were
stolen from them when a 20-year-old Nathaniel Veltman drove his pickup truck into the Afzaal-Salman family who were out for a walk in the evening. Veltman then drove off the sidewalk
leaving only nine-year-old Fayez as the injured, sole survivor.

According to Gallup (an American analytics and advisory company), Canada is rated the best
country in the world for welcoming immigrants. But is the country only welcoming on paper?
What other violent events have occurred based around Islamophobia? Where does this hatred of
Islam and Muslims stem from? The experiences of the Muslims living in this country vary
regarding this topic. There is both good and bad of course, with some communities and
individuals becoming victims of hatred. But there is also support, unity and meaningful
connections between Muslims and non-Muslims in Canada.

Unfortunately, Islamophobia in Canada is not a rare occurrence. Every few months, a headline
takes the news about an attack fueled by hatred.

In January 2017, a gunman named Alexandre Bissonnette entered the Quebec Islamic Cultural
Centre and opened fire on worshippers in the mosque. The attack left six dead, and five injured.
One survivor, Aymen Darbali, had rushed the attacker, and was shot seven times in the process
as he tried to protect the other worshippers. The attack has left him paralyzed in a wheelchair due
to a bullet entering his spine.

In an Al Jazeera article five years after the attack, Darbali says he still fears that he may be
targeted again. “I can’t even close my fingers. If someone attacks us, I can’t act, I can’t do
anything. I can’t protect myself. I can’t protect my family,” says Darbali.

Fear of being a victim of violence runs through the minds of Muslims often. This fear is
significantly increased when they have been personally affected by it before.

In a search warrant by London Police, hate-related material was found on Veltman’s electronic
devices. Additionally, it was discovered that Veltman was regularly accessing the dark web, a
side of the internet that is notorious for extremist or illegal content and communication.

York University Professor Thabit Abdullah teaches Islamic history. He believes an
Islamophobe’s strongest argument against the Muslim community is that they “do not want to
integrate into Canadian society.” Abdullah believes that if you show an Islamophobe that
Muslims are indeed integrated into society, their entire argument falls apart.

“Muslims are eager to be seen as Canadian and embrace the country,” he says. “If you could
show an Islamophobe how alike you truly are to other Canadians, and how much you care for
your community, then their hate would lose its purpose, wouldn’t you agree?”

In May 2015, the St. Catherine of Siena Church in Mississauga was a victim of what was then
assumed to be a hate crime in which its statue of Jesus Christ was vandalized by a young Muslim
man. This charge was later dropped as a hate crime as the perpetrator of the crime was revealed
to be a schizophrenic patient. However, his crimes led to an inspiring local story of how Dr.
Hamid Slimi of the Sayeda Khadija Centre acted upon the principles of his religion: Islam.

“When I heard the news of [the church] I felt bad because you know that could happen to our
mosque,” he says. “So I went and visited them. Then I went back to our community and said
‘Let’s do something.’ So on Jummah (Friday prayer, a day of congregation for Muslims) people
gave [money] and I signed the cheque and I took it to the church.”

Slimi had raised $5,000. But his charitable work had not begun there. He has been serving the
Muslim community in Canada for the last 25 years. From a variety of interfaith work, to simply
serving the community in which he lives, Slimi is constantly working to help others. “We help
anybody who needs help,” he says.

The Sayeda Khadija Centre is also part of a larger organization, both founded by Slimi. The
Faith of Life Network is the road through which Slimi does all his community work, events and
fundraisers. He says, “There is a strong relationship with Catholics in general, including bishops,
rabbis, Jewish communities, Christians from different churches. We have a very strong
relationship with many faith groups.”

In addition to interfaith work, Slimi also works with the Mississauga Food Bank through this
network. The Centre has just raised 11,000 pounds of food for them this past November, as well
as $5,000. “We do this every year,” he says.

“We raise money, cook food, we give back. We’re a part of this society. We can’t just take. We
take and give. It’s not about ‘what is my religion?’ It’s ‘what can I do for my fellow human?’
Give charity. Feed the hungry.”

Shelita Roopchan is the community partnerships coordinator at the Mississauga Food Bank. She
is “responsible for managing [their] community partnerships portfolio, that includes working
with local state organization, service class community, and really helping them with contracts or
fundraisers,” she says, “[and] for developing a community engagement strategy.”

Roopchan has worked with Slimi for the past two years at the food bank. She says that the
earliest dates she has for the Faith of Life Network is 2015 and that they have donated thousands
of pounds of food over the years. Additionally, Roopchan says her experiences with Muslim
faith groups and mosques “counteract” Islamophobia.

“I feel like [Islamophobia] is baseless. [Islamophobes] look at the actions of a few individuals
that are not reflective of an entire community. The interactions I’ve had with our Muslim
community have shown me that they are so compassionate, kind and loving. This xenophobic
narrative is counteracting to this.”

Many Integrated Muslim Communities

Shalimar Islamic Centre, located in Mississauga, is a housing complex with a mosque centered
as the communal ground for its residents. Huzaifah Patel, a resident of this community has lived
there his 22 years.

“Shalimar is an Islamic community which welcomes everyone. Considering we have a mosque
in the middle, we see a lot of Muslims,” says Patel. “However, we also have non-Muslims of all
other religions that are happy living with us.”

About 25% of the population is non-Muslim. Patel says he’s always felt there were no conflicts
in identity with his neighbours. “Our families are not necessarily close, but me as well as some
of their kids back [when I was young], we’d always play together. There was pretty much no
difference between us.” Patel also says that “during Ramadan (the month of fasting from sunrise
to sunset for Muslims) we always send food for our neighbours even though they do not
participate in Ramadan. They also send food to us when it is time to break our fasts.”

Although he was born into an immigrant Muslim family in Canada, Patel is well integrated into
Canadian society and culture. He checks off many of the things which may label someone

“I love doing the typical Canadian sports, I’m a huge Toronto Raptors fan, huge Maple Leafs
fan, and a baseball fan for the Blue Jays. I also love the food in Canada,” says Patel. “[This
country] is a melting pot of all types of regions, countries and ethnicities. I love going down to
the Square One area and getting all types of food, which is what Canada is all about.”

Professor Abdullah’s thoughts on Muslim integration to Canadian society come into play as we
can tell there are examples that support it.

Patel says “I’m no different than [a non-Muslim is.] We all enjoy our things; I just have a
different religion than you. That’s pretty much it. Like everything you do as a Canadian, that you
love about Canada, I, as a Muslim Canadian, love pretty much the exact same stuff. There is no
real difference between us.”

Unfortunately, not every Muslim has had a positive experience with non-Muslims as a child.
Ahmad, 22, whose last name he requested not to be mentioned, faced discrimination in a
majority white school in Ontario.

“I faced discrimination because I had a different name. I was often called Ahmad the terrorist, I
was poked fun of for having an Islamic name because the school was majority Christian.”
The name “Ahmad the terrorist” may have stemmed from a ventriloquist character called
“Achmed the Dead Terrorist” created by comedian Jeffrey Dunham in which he would use a
puppet skeleton with bushy eyebrows and a Turban to mock fighters in conflicts in the Middle

Ahmad moved to Canada from Syria in 2006 when he was six. He says a lot of the hate he
received was because of the stereotype that all Muslims were terrorists because of 9/11. He also
says that his family was discriminated against. “My sisters were harassed for wearing the hijab
and dressing modestly during university,” he says.

Ahmad believes that Islamophobia exists in “homogenous communities where the immigrant
population is really low and diversity isn’t as common.”

But the division in this country is not as strong as its unity. Nearly a million dollars were raised
for the Azfaal family, specifically for the boy who was left without his parents, grandmother and
sister. Evidently, Canadians of all backgrounds and faiths came together to try and give this boy
a brighter future.

Additionally, Derbali, the man who rushed the attacker in Quebec was given $310,000 for his
heroic actions on that frightening day. In 2018, a year after the attack, donations from people in
Quebec, across Canada and the world were given to him in a ceremony to commemorate his

“I am proof that when we show love, the world will show love in return,” said Derbali.

However, Islamophobia still runs in a chunk of Canadians and it creates an outrage when violent
actions result from it. Just this March, a mosque in Mississauga was the target of another would-be attack.

On March 19, around seven in the morning, Mohammad Omar entered the Dar Al-Tawheed
Islamic Centre with a can of bear spray while brandishing a hatchet. He attempted to use the bear
spray but was quickly pinned down by the worshippers in the mosque. The worshippers had
minor injuries but thankfully nobody was seriously harmed. The attacker had other weapons and
rope packed in his bag. Peel Police believe that his attack was a “hate-motivated incident.”

With headlines like these becoming more frequent over the years, Muslims fear congregating
together to avoid being the victim of an attack. Angie Hindy, who is the mosque’s administrator,
mentioned in a CBC article that the members of the mosque were “shocked and saddened.” She
also says that “it is also upsetting because Ramadan is coming up and that is a high season for
mosques,” fearing that attacks like this may discourage Muslims from coming to the centre.

Slimi believes Islamophobia is a “big issue in our society, no doubt.” But he also believes that it
is propagated by the “ignorant ones.”

“The cure to Islamophobia is compassion and spreading knowledge and patience. Patience is the
key. Everything takes time to grow. Knowledge needs to be communicated and acts of kindness
can change the world. People don’t want to do that because it takes too long. But they don’t
realize that things that take too long, cook better.”

Hatred for Muslims and Islam may not always be acts of violence. It can be a dirty look to a
woman wearing a hijab. It could be exclusion or bullying of a child with a non-Christian name.
A snarky comment, a small mistreatment. The alienation of a man with brown skin and a beard.
But all of this stems from a way of thinking through ignorant eyes.

Slimi says “Do to others as you would like them to do to you. We are all brothers and sisters in
humanity. We should never in the name of religion look down upon another.”

A Muslim should act on the principles of their religion, with kindness and helping their
community in any which way they can. Through actions, the Muslim community in Canada may
find a way to win over ignorant minds. From there one can hope that overtime, slowly but surely,
Islamophobia will be a term of the past so that we as Canadians can truly say that Islamophobia
has been cured.

Freelance writer Ibrahim Parker can be reached at ibrahimparkar1999@gmail.com

Speaking Their Language


By Ademi Yestayeva | Featured image via Unsplash

On July 9, 2020, Janna Aitakhmet and I appeared on each other’s screens: two girls from Kazakhstan with bangs and glasses, smiling and waving like a slightly aged reflection in the mirror. Janna, 15, booked a lesson with me on a new e-learning platform “Teaching for Heroes.”

I am a 21-year-old 4th-year student in York University’s Professional Writing program; it was my first time tutoring someone outside of my family and I was anxious. Soon after, however, the awkwardness was gone. We sang along to Winter Bear by V of BTS — a famous K-pop group we both love — to practice the English pronunciation. We also discovered that we share a favourite Studio Ghibli movie, Howl’s Moving Castle. The fantasy film became a recurring theme in our lessons for the next two months.

Janna was my first student when the social initiative “Teaching for Heroes” (TFH) emerged in Kazakhstan at the beginning of July, as the country was entering a second COVID-19 lockdown. At its core, it was a grand “thank you.” Hundreds of high school and college students volunteered to tutor the children of frontline medical workers online, while their parents were fighting COVID — like heroes. 

The charity project, started by a few teenagers from Almaty, Kazakhstan, soon went international. Perhaps because it wasn’t like learning at school; students picked teachers based on their interests and availability. The premise was to teach English to students aged 8 to 16, but many were also interested in other subjects, like biology and chemistry, or preparing for college admissions. To their own surprise, some of the teachers found themselves sharing their adolescent experiences on top of explaining grammar rules.

The Republic of Kazakhstan might be known in the West to those into boxing (Triple G or Gennady Golovkin was the world’s best boxer in 2017), or to those who have seen the movie Borat. (By the way, the opening scenes were actually filmed in Romania.) It’s the world’s largest landlocked country and it generates 60% of Central Asia’s GDP through the oil and gas industry. The country is also home to more than 100 ethnic groups. Approximately 83% of the population speaks the state language, Kazakh. However, Russian is the language of international communication throughout the region.

A lot of Kazakhstanis speak more than one language. In 2007, the government adopted a cultural project “Trinity of Languages,” aimed at making the country trilingual by developing Kazakh and Russian across-the-board, and English as “the language of integration into the global economy.” Though English isn’t needed in day-to-day life in Kazakhstan, it’s a mandatory subject at most schools and a common aspiration for schoolchildren and adults, whether for business or travel, but particularly education.

TFH’s founder, Ilya Kan, 16, is the same age as the older students in the program. He got the idea for the project when he was returning home to Almaty from his boarding school at Milton Academy in Massachusetts last March. During his mandated 14-day quarantine at a hospital, he met and befriended a nurse named Akmaral.

She told him she wished her 12-year-old son could speak English like Kan and asked for tips on how the boy could learn the language. At some point, Kan started creating exercises for him and found himself enjoying the process. After being released from quarantine, he couldn’t reach out to Akmaral, but he wanted to express his appreciation for her hard work. “[The project] became a way to say thank you to the people who are risking their lives in the fight against COVID-19,” he says.

Kan contacted some acquaintances in Poland, who founded the e-platform Nativated for learning English in one-on-one sessions with students from two top UK universities, Oxford and Cambridge. Eventually, they agreed to make a website for TFH for free using the template they already had. Kan promised to use some of the funds donated to TFH to purchase lessons at Nativated as a gesture of thanks.

In preparation for the launch, Kan invited some old friends from school to join the management team, and they began recruiting volunteers via social media to register on the communication platform Slack. Within a month, the project’s workspace was boasting over 300 participants. The brand-new website was up and running on July 7, 2020. In the first three days, 650 students registered across Kazakhstan, 185 lessons took place and 210 more were already booked. 

The brand-new website was up and running on July 7, 2020. In the first three days, 650 students registered across Kazakhstan, 185 lessons took place and 210 more were already booked.

Janna was one of the first students enrolled in the program. The only daughter of a pediatrician, she was living in Pavlodar — a city of 331,000 in northeastern Kazakhstan. She had seen her mother only two times between March and July. Janna was isolating at home with her father and grandmother and finished grade 8 remotely at the end of May. The doctors at her mother’s hospital were contacted about the upcoming site for learning English for their children, and Janna’s mother, Dina Aitakhmet, encouraged her timid and soft-spoken daughter to sign up.

At first, Janna was afraid it would be like school, where you get scolded for grammar mistakes. She booked her first lesson after choosing me from the list of available teachers. Being stuck at home in lockdown, I had a lot of free time, and I joined the project in hopes that my skills could be helpful to others — I’ve been fluent in English since I was a high schooler in Almaty five years ago. Janna initially liked my interest in K-pop; later, we had many educational conversations about culture, travel, and foreign languages — all, of course, in English.

According to Kan, the project is about “learning, sharing experiences, and at the same time, making friends and meeting new people, learning about new experiences.” The volunteers are encouraged to share fun facts on their profiles upon registration, so students can get a sense of their personality before booking a lesson. The objective is to create a stress-free and informal environment that encourages learning in a fun and interactive way, as opposed to the traditional classroom setting.

The main criteria for becoming a teacher were straightforward: knowing English at least at the Upper Intermediate (B2) level and having a couple of hours of free time weekly. The first batch of volunteers were students from all over Kazakhstan, as well as those studying and living abroad — from the U.S. all the way to New Zealand. 

But despite the background similarities, everyone’s living situation was different. Anel Abiken, 22, had just completed her BA in Biochemistry at the University of Exeter in the UK. She was self-isolating in the quiet city of Exeter, populated mainly with students and seniors. Under normal circumstances, she would’ve done an internship at a local lab and then gone home to Almaty for a break, but she decided not to risk her family’s and her own health.

Teaching wasn’t something Abiken would have imagined herself doing. But during the two months she participated in the program, she taught two to four lessons weekly to three students. It was practical for her, in a way: due to the five-hour time difference, she had to teach in the mornings, and that helped her maintain a routine similar to the one she had before lockdown. She was relieved, though, when her students asked to learn more about her field of study, rather than English grammar — that seemed easier for someone about to pursue her M.Sc. in Material Engineering.

But even in the middle of breaking down the theory of evolution, as one had asked her to do, she found herself connecting more personally with one of her students, 15-year-old Aisiya, who wants to study medicine and biology. The teenager was angry the boys at her school kept telling her that women shouldn’t be in science. Abiken discussed the matter with her, which led to a conversation on the role of women in STEM. For homework, she sent her student introductory articles to read up on feminism in English.

This was the moment that, much to her surprise, Abiken realized she was a lot more engaged in the teaching process than she thought she would be. She also started teaching her students how to write personal statements for their college applications and shared her experience transitioning from high school to university in a foreign country on her own — the things she had to learn through trial and error. She became the mentor she wished she had when she was younger: “It was nice that I could be the one to support them through this.”

Though the project was initially aimed at the children of medical workers, it was so successful that by the end of the first month, the management team expanded the program to include the children of police officers, large families and low-income families, all aged 8 to 16. Around the same time, the program also became available to children from neighbouring Russia.

A few more weeks down the road, the program truly became international: volunteers and students started joining from eight more countries, including Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Armenia. The number of teachers registered reached about a thousand, and the number of students enrolled exceeded two thousand. 

Through all this, the project remained charitable and functioned on private donations — most of which came from exposure in the media. Forbes Kazakhstan even profiled Kan on the magazine’s website on August 7, where he talked about what makes the tutoring program special. “Our goal isn’t [for the student] to become fluent as fast as possible,” he said, “but rather to motivate them to keep learning the language in the future.”

The program was so successful it was expanded to include the children of police officers, large families and low-income families.

Offering mentorship to the younger generation turned out to be challenging, even if it was about helping them prepare for exams that the teachers had already taken. Bayan Tulbassova, 21, recalls receiving many questions from 16-year-olds about college admissions and having to do extensive research to respond to them all. But still, she was so committed that she conducted her first lesson despite having a mild case of COVID-19. She and her first student Amina, 19, had had to reschedule a few times, and Tulbassova was determined to be there.

However, she admits she felt slightly incompetent and almost succumbed to impostor syndrome at first — the psychological phenomenon of a person doubting their skills or accomplishments. As a senior Industrial Engineering student at the University of Hong Kong, she kept asking herself, “Who am I to teach this kid? Am I even good at English?” After every class, she felt relief that it went well. And though it may sound selfish, she especially enjoyed getting feedback from her students. She needed the reassurance that the lesson was actually useful.

She wasn’t alone in feeling nervous about the project. Janna recalls her anxiety before the first lesson — she is more used to dealing with teachers her parents’ age than someone so close to hers. But if you asked her which she prefers more, she would pick the program and its practice of conversational speech over the school curriculum and its many standardized tests.

The study materials also make a difference. Instead of the few topics about nature, traditions and family that get recycled from year to year in most English textbooks, students have the chance to explore literature and cinematography about different cultures and experiences relevant to their age. Janna and I have read When Marnie Was There, a novel about a young girl, by the British author Joan G. Robinson, and Janna later watched the animated adaptation of the book by Studio Ghibli. I also introduced her to Anne with an E, a recent show based on the Canadian classic Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. She binge-watched it in a few days and we set up a video call outside of class to watch the series finale together.

In August, Janna was accompanying her dad on a work visit to a different city, but she still attended the lessons because “they were so interesting, [she] didn’t want to miss them.” She says that now she can actually respond when someone asks her questions in English, though she still worries about making mistakes a little — out of habit.

Tulbassova’s most memorable moment also involved TV-related nostalgia. In attempts to entertain Angelina, 9, from Moscow, they watched the 2005 American cartoon Ben 10 that was popular in her childhood. Angelina turned out to be a fan, too. This little activity made her feel connected to Angelina, despite the physical distance of thousands of kilometres, the generational gap, and the cultural differences between the two ex-Soviet states. “I was surprised that people still know Ben 10, though,” she laughs.

Around the same time, Alika Ustabekova, 18, who lives in Almaty like Tulbassova, was tutoring another girl living in Moscow, 11-year-old Arina. They turned out to have a lot in common, too: Arina likes to draw and write poems; Ustabekova got her love and appreciation for art from her father, who is a poet and collects paintings. And they both have four siblings, with Arina being around the same age as one of Ustabekova’s younger brothers. Her student reminded her of herself when she was younger, similarly to how I felt about Janna.

There was no talk of college or exams for these two, though. Ustabekova focused on helping Arina improve her English at the level appropriate for her age, the way she helps her younger brothers with their homework, which she enjoys. And since she had some time before starting at KIMEP University in Almaty, she taught almost every evening throughout August. “I liked that I could do something beneficial that brought me joy at the same time,” she says.

Although the program was designed for times of self-isolation, it brought people together more than anything. Thousands of teenagers and other young people experienced a unique opportunity to learn and communicate by turning the current limitations into new possibilities.

The project currently remains as is, with volunteers joining and teaching when they can. But Kan says there is now a focus on teaching orphans — potentially offline, as it becomes safe to do so. He’s been in contact with heads of orphanages in the Almaty region, and hopes to bring in volunteers in the near future. The project does take a lot of maintenance work, but its unprecedented success shows that a small sentiment of gratitude can grow into something incredible that positively impacts lives.

Ademi Yestayeva, yestay.ademi@gmail.com, is a freelance writer.

Degrees of Coping

Female university students learn how to manage increased anxiety due to COVID-19.

By Julia Vaiano | Featured image via Unsplash

Andrea Silva enters her quaint kitchen, settles into a chair and places her small Tim Hortons Iced Capp on the table. It’s 8 a.m. on Monday, November 9, 2020, which marks the start of a new school week, and Silva can’t help but already feel anxious. Her dark brown hair with blonde tips is pulled back into a messy bun, and her chocolate-brown eyes look notably fatigued.

The 20-year-old student spots her floral-patterned day planner sprawled before her. She sees a long list of assignments scribbled on the page. Silva shuts the planner, feeling her stomach churning from her increasing anxiety. Her mind begins to race as she worries about falling behind in her studies because of how demanding online school is.

Her heart palpitates in her chest and her breathing becomes unsteady. Silva panics and begins to feel dizzy as she struggles to breathe. She closes her eyes and does a breathing technique where she takes 10 breaths, inhaling each time for four seconds and exhaling for 10 seconds. After slowly exhaling for the last time, Silva feels the tension lessen; her breathing returns to a steady pace. 

 Silva is a third-year concurrent education and English major at York University. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she is completing all her courses online from home. She feels like she is on “an emotional rollercoaster” because online schooling has heightened her anxiety. She is struggling with online school because of how “time-consuming it is.”

Silva is not the only student struggling with mental health issues because of the pandemic. Many Ontario female university students report that their anxiety and stress have increased because of online learning, financial difficulties, and social restrictions due to COVID. Some of them, however, have discovered effective coping strategies to calm and centre themselves during these challenging and uncertain times, such as breathing techniques and practicing yoga.

“Many Ontario female university students report that their anxiety and stress have increased because of online learning, financial difficulties, and social restrictions due to COVID.”

An article published on November 24, 2020, by The Conversation, a Canadian independent source of news for the academic community, states that in comparison to males, “more female students indicate that the COVID-19 pandemic has been extremely disruptive to their stress and mental health, and that it has significantly disrupted their academic studies.”

Silva worries about excelling academically. Every night, she sits in front of her computer, trying to stay awake. Since the start of the 2020-2021 school year, Silva’s sleep schedule has not been consistent because she has difficulty limiting how much time she devotes to her academic studies.

“I often overthink, creating maybes and what-if scenarios in my head of falling behind and getting bad grades,” she says. “I start to believe these scenarios at one point, and I start to get panicky.” 

Rachel Browne, 21, a physical education major at Brock University, is also having difficulty focusing at home because she’s not in a classroom environment. 

The most challenging part for Browne is adhering to a consistent study schedule. “It’s really testing my time management skills and ability to get stuff done and not procrastinate because everything is asynchronous,” she says.

Both Browne and Silva are the type of students who would often speak with their professors after class to receive clarification and answers to their questions. Now, they have to rely on email or Zoom meetings to communicate with their professors and tutorial leaders. Being unable to receive immediate assistance or answers to their questions exacerbates their anxiety.

 “Even in between class breaks, I would always walk over to see my professor and ask a question if I needed to,” she says. “Now, with every single course, I have to send emails or schedule a Zoom meeting in advance. Either way, it takes longer to receive a response.”

Browne longs for the socializing that occurred on campus. “I miss being able to see my friends and have study groups with them,” she says.

Silva is not only anxious about online learning but about how the pandemic has affected her finances. In March 2020, Silva was laid off from her job at a gym and now receives the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) as compensation. She has no choice but to be extremely conscientious about how much money she is spending per month because she now receives less money, and she is still expected to contribute to some of the household expenses at home.

Her concern regarding her finances has caused her anxiety to increase. “If my anxiety were a scale, I would have broken it already,” she says.

Grace (not her real name; she asked not to be identified for privacy reasons), 18, an early childhood studies major at the University of Guelph-Humber, is also concerned about her finances because she could not find employment over the summer. “It’s frustrating because I wanted to work a lot so I could put away money before starting university,” she says. Grace received the Canadian Emergency Student Benefit (CESB) over the summer months, which provides financial support to recent high school graduates and postsecondary students who could not find work because of COVID-19.

Although the government support was helpful, many students continued to feel stressed about their finances. Statistics Canada released a report, “Impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on postsecondary students,” on May 12, 2020. It found that, “Prior to the announcement of the CESB, 73% of participants indicated that they were very or extremely concerned about using up their savings. This declined [but to only] 61% following the announcement.”

Both Grace and Silva say they would have more than likely made more money if they’d worked during the summer months. 

 “I’m more stressed now because I think so much more before making any purchases to ensure they are necessary, and I’m buying products I need instead of want,” Silva says. When she feels overwhelmed from financial and other anxieties, she relies on breathing techniques to calm her anxiety. 

Breathing techniques have been proven to be effective when it comes to alleviating anxiety. According to Medical News Today, “Experts often recommend breathing exercises as a way to cope with anxiety. Such exercises help people slow their heart rate and feel calm.”

Breathing techniques are Silva’s best coping strategies for anxiety, but for Jessica D’Rozario, 21, yoga has proven to be an effective coping strategy. 

D’Rozario lives in St. Catharines with three roommates and studies psychology at Brock University. Due to the social restrictions imposed by COVID-19, her social circle has become limited.

D’Rozario is a lively and energetic woman who has long, blonde, pin-straight hair and friendly hazel eyes. She has a genuine passion for the nightlife and never misses an opportunity, as she puts it, “to go on an adventure.” 

Before the pandemic, D’Rozario looked forward to spending her weekends meeting up with her group of friends at local bars, restaurants, and clubs. Occupied by her full-time school schedule and her busy social life, D’Rozario seldom had a moment alone.

“When the lockdown first happened, I panicked because I relied on going out with my friends all the time to relieve my stress,” she says.

This bubbly, vivacious woman, who always had weekend plans, couldn’t cope with being housebound. She suddenly had all this extra free time and was left alone with her thoughts, which led her to dwell on her worries. Her anxiety spiralled out of control because she couldn’t accept losing her social life.

She began to panic over the uncertainty of how long she would have to remain isolated from her friends. A sense of hopelessness settled over her like a dark storm cloud that she couldn’t seem to shake. 

“I suffered because I missed seeing my friends in person, and having a physical interaction with other people is significant because it’s a big factor in relieving my stress,” she says.

She realized she needed to find another coping strategy other than socializing with her friends. With her roommate, she decided to return to practicing yoga by watching videos on YouTube.

The practice of yoga is about stretching and concentrating on holding different poses while focusing on breathing. Focusing on maintaining a pose and controlling your breath can distract you from anxious thoughts and worries. 

Psychotherapist Bryan E. Robinson, a Professor Emeritus at the University of North Carolina, wrote an article in Psychology Today in August 2020 where he discussed the benefits of yoga for generalized anxiety disorder. “Staying focused on your body and breath gives your brain a long-overdue break,” he said. “After just one session, it’s possible to come away with a quieter mind.”

Yoga has helped relieve D’Rozario’s anxiety. “Since I started practicing yoga again, I have to say I feel a lot calmer, and my mind feels so much clearer,” she says.

A recent study published in August 2020, also in Psychology Today discusses how yoga’s popular and inexpensive practice can help treat adults’ anxiety. Dr. Naomi Simon, a lead researcher and a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at New York University’s Langone Health, said, “Our findings demonstrate that yoga, which is safe and widely available, can improve symptoms for some people with this disorder and could be a valuable tool in an overall treatment plan.”

Practicing yoga has also proven to be an effective tool in relieving Grace’s anxious feelings. She was so looking forward to starting her first year at university, where she could meet new friends and join extracurricular clubs, but with COVID, she could not be as social as she intended to be. 

Being stuck at home for such a long period was causing her to feel nervous and restless. She decided to practice yoga for the first time to relax and keep busy.

“I’ve always been an active person. I was used to playing rep soccer for the longest time, which I liked because it was so fast-paced. But I started reading things online about how yoga could be good for relaxation and reducing anxiety, so I decided to give it a try,” she says.

She decided to commit to practicing yoga three times a week by watching videos on YouTube. After starting this routine, she observed the positive effects yoga had on both her mind and body. Since practicing yoga, she feels more relaxed, less apprehensive, and no longer on-edge all the time. 

Rachel Liebman, the assistant director for York University’s Psychology Clinic, advises that in addition to exercising, spending time outdoors can be an effective strategy in calming the mind and the body.

Liebman also recommends keeping a stable and consistent routine, which includes maintaining a good and healthy sleep schedule, taking time away from the computer screen, and making sure to contain your work hours.

“It’s also important to find opportunities to connect with people in the ways that are possible. Be flexible with what is available to you,” she says.

She acknowledges this is a challenging time for everybody but knows it’s an especially difficult time for young people, who are struggling because they, in particular, need social connections and are not receiving them because of the circumstances.

Liebman believes it’s important students recognize they are not alone. She says that relying on the smallest interventions can make the biggest difference in reducing feelings of stress, anxiety, and panic. “Don’t underestimate the value of small interventions. You know, like the five-minute text or walk outside.” 

Silva agrees with Liebman. During the pandemic, she has relied on technology to stay in communication with her friends by exchanging text messages and talking on the phone.

When asked about how often she speaks to her close friends, Silva’s face lights up and she smiles. “I talk to my friends every day,” she says, “and they always manage to make me laugh, and sometimes, there are moments when I’m laughing so hard I temporarily forget about the COVID-19 pandemic and all my worries, and I’m just happy.”

Julia Vaiano, vaianojulia@gmail.com, is a freelance writer.