C: Congratulations on graduating from McMasters University with a Kinesiology degree! I know things have been quite anti-climatic for the Class of 2020 but this class of people including you, have been some of the most inspiring and resilient people I know. With finishing your undergrad journey, I would love to hear more about what were some of the biggest learning moments in the past four years and how have they shaped who you are today?
A: Thank you, Cecilia! Sending heartfelt congratulations to you for everything you have achieved this year. Amidst all this uncertainty, I feel so grateful to be surrounded by such an incredible community of young people who are using their skills and building platforms for the betterment of our society. I love seeing peers in search of careers and postgraduate opportunities that won’t just move their own lives forwards, but that of all of humanity. Now more than ever, we are taking what we have learned and applying it to the world as we see it.
These past four years have been an absolute whirlwind of experiences, both on campus and out in the rest of the world. So many long days, longer evening, early morning classes and late night ones. It is funny how upon reflecting on these past four years, the individual memories have merged into one picture in my mind, and I am left with these all encompassing statements that aim to capture so many feelings.
One of the biggest learning moments for me was in first year, but it took some time to truly recognize the value of it. The summer after grade 12, my mom was diagnosed with cancer. As you can imagine, this was not easy for anyone in my family. It felt like the sturdy foundation I had worked so hard to create in my high school was falling apart.
While I was physically keeping busy in school in a new city, attending classes all day and trying to manage a demanding workload, my mind was always at home with my mom. I would worry about her constantly—on the bus ride to school, during lectures, gaps between classes were especially difficult. I would head home in the evenings to spend the night with her in the hospital, making anatomy notes on a pull-out bed, using my cell phone flashlight to illuminate my textbook so as to not disturb her. But I didn’t tell anyone what I was going through, partly because I kept it together so my friends wouldn’t ask, but I guess I also did not want to face the judgement of peers thinking that I was falling behind already. I would offer to trade my chapter reading notes with friends for their lecture notes to fill the gaps from any classes I spaced out in. I was too afraid to reach out for support and I didn’t want to worry my parents more than they already were.
Eventually, our worlds began to heal when my mom finished her treatments, Alhumdullilah (Praise be to God). It wasn’t until my third year that, upon opening up to some friends about my struggles with first year courses, that I discovered I was not as alone as I thought I was. While I was struggling with one thing, my friends were facing others. But why did it take 3 years for us to share our truths? I realized that it was likely because being vulnerable is not easy. It is almost as though putting on a brave face is less energy consuming than acknowledging the root cause of the issue. I was preoccupying myself with other tasks, journalling, speaking, volunteering, running clothing drives, anything to help put the pieces of the person I knew back together.
Opening up with my friends and laying out our trials lifted a weight from each of our shoulders. We all have so much to learn from each other. To anyone struggling with their own battle, I hope you remember that your feelings are valid. Please seek out and use the resources available. There is so much beautiful life waiting to be experienced by you.
C: Since meeting you through Plan Canada’s Girls Belong Here program, you have been a strong proponent for women and youth empowerment. What drives your passion behind both these movements or initiatives?
A: I found my voice through volunteering at a very young age. As with many immigrant families, my parents did everything they could to provide a better life for my sisters and I than the ones they knew. But I was a curious kid. I was constantly asking why, always trying to uncover life’s little mysteries. Where’s Aiza been for the past several hours? Probably going down another rabbit hole to answer her own questions … and I can’t say that’s no longer the case!
Even with this beautiful childhood I was blessed with, I could not help but look at how, while I continued to move forward in my own life, a plethora of children my age were being left behind. Their progress stagnated. Futures out of reach. It was around this time that I witnessed children lined up outside of a local hotel, waiting to retrieve stale bread as it was being disposed of. Here, yet another question was formed, eagerly awaiting its answer. Despite my faith in the fact that all humans were created as equals, I was realizing that we are not always treated equally. I was 10 or 11 years old when I decided that I needed to channel my frustrations surrounding the injustices of our world into something positive. Serving humanity seemed like the natural progression.
My parents supported this passion from the get-go. I think they saw something in me that I was imperceptive to, because all I knew at the time was that I wanted to help people. I wanted to be the friend that a child needed. I wanted to use whatever limited resources I had to help children build the life of their dreams.
My mom and dad would drive me to and from homeless shelters, children’s hospitals and food banks early in the morning and late after school to help me give my time to help others. This early exposure to volunteerism was part of the reason I was so confused that high school’s only required 40 hours of community service. I remember thinking… 40 hours per month? Or per year? Until eventually realizing it was 40 hours collectively for all four years of high school. It’s never been about the number of hours for me, but the sweetest moments with the families I’ve been able to support. Regardless of my best efforts to enter each situation hoping to help people in some way, each conversation changes my life so much more.
C: Before I get more into your values, aspirations, and the bulk of who you are, I want to take the time to recognize the wonderful organization you build : Aiza’s TeddyBear Foundation which has to date donated hundreds of thousands of toys and school supplies to hospitals and low income schools. What prompted you to start this foundation and what brings you the most joy within the work you’re doing? What have been some challenges along the way and how have you learned from them or how has it influenced the work that you continue to do?
A: Thanks so much for the kind words! I have always had a deeply rooted desire to reach out to children in need. So, when my grade 10 civic’s class was instructed to take action on any initiative of our choice, I thought this is it! I finally have this opportunity to create this project of my dreams, and on top of it all, I’m receiving class time to do so. Aiza’s Teddybear Foundation (ATBF) stemmed from a lifetime of meeting the most inspiring children from all walks of life, from all across the globe and learning about how much they wanted to share their stories with the world.
Aiza’s Teddybear Foundation (ATBF) was a product of realizing that there were not very many existing children charities at the time that provided opportunities to engage youth themselves in social justice activities. I wanted to encourage the individuals we work with to look within themselves and give in ways that did not require opening their wallets to every cause.
Since 2013, we have repurposed and distributed well over 100,000 stuffed toys, clothing & school supply donations to serve purpose in the lives of individuals in need. We receive phone calls and emails from families every week, who request items and we put out the call to our community who fulfill these needs with items they already have at home. We then work to clean, sort, iron & pack donations, making the items like new before sending them out to their families. It has been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life to be able to connect members of our community, from all walks of life, together in this way. Many families who reach out to us are redirected by their local food banks and homeless shelters who are unable to support their needs, or who do not meet the organization’s eligibility criteria for donations. I created ATBF on a different belief—we recognize how challenging it is for an individual to be vulnerable and put their trust in a stranger, so we never ask for information that would weed out anyone who needs help.
Starting out, I decided that I would put my personal phone number on our website because I loved conversing with people who would quickly become friends and matching their needs with support from our community. I will never forget one of the first phone calls I received where a single mother was requesting support in the form of clothing for her children. After recording sizes and type of clothing, I asked her “and what types of clothing would you like?”, and she started to cry, “For me?! I can’t remember the last time anyone asked me that.” A simple conversation left me with a question that I will keep on asking. Now, you may be wondering why teddy bears? At the time, all I knew for sure was that I wanted to do whatever I could to provide to children in need. I’ve since realized that these stuffed toys symbolize something greater. They are a glimpse into our effort to give back childhood to kids who have been deprived of their formative years due to some of the great injustices of our present world, including poverty, slavery, war, abuse and bullying. Teddy bears seemed like a simple enough act of kindness to connect with kids and provide them with a tangible piece of their lost childhood.
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