Her own experience with racism and xenophobia as a young newcomer to Canada inspired one Winnipeg high school student to take action.
In Grade 3, not long after Palvi Saini immigrated to Winnipeg from India, children in her school called her a terrorist and told to her to go back to her own country, she said.
"I never told the teacher what was happening to me because I didn't know there was someone that I could tell in the school, so for two or three years I just dealt with it on my own," Saini said.
The experience left a lasting mark and in part helped inspire Saini, now in Grade 12, to organize the "Fear Less, Love More" rally against Islamophobia in Winnipeg on Wednesday.
About 500 students and school staff were expected at the event, which started at the Winnipeg Central Mosque at 10 a.m. Wednesday followed by a march to the Manitoba Legislature and U.S. Consulate in downtown Winnipeg.
Saini chose to raise awareness about Islamophobia in particular because of the war in Syria and U.S. President Donald Trump's efforts to restrict residents from seven Muslim-majority countries from travelling to America.
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"I think there's been a sudden rise and this fear that's being created through these different events," Saini said. "It's very important to take action before it gets out of hand."
Safe Third Country Agreement
Saini supports calls to suspend the Safe Third Country Agreement, a pact between the United States and Canada meant to discourage "asylum shopping" among refugees. The deal forces asylum seekers to file for refugee status in the first safe country they land in. If such an individual tries to enter Canada via the U.S. at an official border crossing, they're to be refused entry.
But Canada is also a signatory of a United Nations agreement that kicks in and protects prospective refugee claimants if they illegally cross into Canada away from official border crossings.
The Safe Third Country agreement was thrust into the spotlight earlier this year as a steady stream of asylum seekers began crossing the northern border of the U.S. into Canada. Some have lost fingers and toes to frostbite, which is one of the reasons why the march on Wednesday includes a stop at the U.S. Consulate, Saini said.
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She has been volunteering at Newcomers Employment and Education Development Services (NEEDS) for 18 months and says it has been eye-opening.
"I think it's been one of my best experiences," Saini said. "It's changed me as a person, seeing this, kids fleeing such horrible situations and coming here and still so eager to learn and adapt to this new life here in Canada."
Saini said she sees a little bit of herself in children of newcomer families and wants them to know they can reach out for help if they encounter discrimination in school.
"The last thing I want is for the kids to face what I faced," Saini said. "Go talk to someone that can help you."