Helen Tewolde, one of six Canadian immigrants to win the Star-sponsored 2008 New Pioneers Awards, is recipient of the Community Service Award.
With her accountant dad driving a cab and mom doing shift work in a factory, a young Helen Tewolde took up the task of looking after her two smaller siblings after the family settled in Canada.
“I grew up early,” said Tewolde, whose family joined the exodus of Eritrean refugees from the war-torn Horn of Africa to Canada in the 1980s.
“At the back of my mind, my family security always rested on me. When I was young and my parents were out, I always looked outside and hoped nothing would happen to them.”
At their Hamilton home, her father taught the kids how to read and write in their native Tigrigna language to make sure they wouldn’t forget their roots.
Without an extended family here, Tewolde said she experienced for the first time the loss her parents must have felt coming to Canada when she returned to visit relatives in Eritrea. Still, it is that sense of dual identity and connection to the parents’ homeland that Tewolde believes has helped new Canadians become caring global citizens.
“For many of the (second-generation) Canadians, we have two responsibilities. We have a responsibility to Canada and we also have a responsibility back home,” noted Tewolde, who is pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Toronto in comparative, international and development education.
“I believe we should all act locally and think globally,” added the now 26-year-old. “To succeed, you have to have a strong identity, and not to forget your cultural values. By virtue of the first-generation leaders, we can set the ball rolling. There’s a lot depending on us.”
Tewolde’s social activism began while she was studying political science and philosophy at McMaster University. She founded the school’s first online newspaper for African-Caribbean students out of her own pocket. “To be an activist, you just have to keep going despite the fact that it doesn’t pay you,” she said.
She went on to become involved in a range of issues and activities, including the promotion of international development and education in Africa, immigrant and refugee rights, and HIV/AIDS education among African women and girls.
“The New Pioneer Award is a recognition of not only my parents’ sacrifices, but the challenges that we all face in our social, economic and personal development in Canada,” she said. “As a minority, it’s always been an uphill struggle. This is an affirmation of our experience.”
Tewolde, a community grant developer for youth at the United Way of Greater Toronto, is also a recipient of U of T’s Gordon Cressy Leadership Award and McMaster’s Students’ Union Leadership Award.
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