Sylvia Gawad is bent on helping immigrant women

·4 min read

“When you meet her in person, her whole personality, her eyes, her face, lights up. She's just such a strong example of a powerful human being,” Jennifer Gillivan, president and chief executive officer of IWK Foundation, describes her mentee Sylvia Gawad.

Gillivan first met Gawad at a conference in Halifax in 2013, when the young college student approached her after hearing her speak.

At the time, Gawad had just started her first social enterprise, Project 360, a non-profit that helps to empower newcomers through entrepreneurship.

Gillivan was immediately impressed by her energy and the two have fostered a close relationship.

“I just knew the minute I met her, I thought, 'I don't know where you're going to end up, but you're going to end up somewhere,'” said Gillivan.

The impression Gillivan had summarizes who Gawad is. She talks passionately about her cause and Gawad is unapologetic when it comes to advocating for newcomers, especially immigrant women.

The young professional now works at Placemaking 4G, a social enterprise that helps employers to attract and retain talent.

Signing on with Placemaking 4G, Gawad said, was a strategic move. Her position as the research, innovation, and immigration manager allows her to continue to educate the community about the value of immigrants as well as the hardships many face — a cause that she has been dedicated to for 10 years.

“It's beyond just the passion. It's who I am,” said Gawad.

Since coming to Halifax in 2010, Gawad has worked relentlessly in the non-profit sector to help newcomers get settled before starting her own social enterprise. She sits as a volunteer on multiple boards, sometimes as the only woman of colour under 30, to champion the rights of underrepresented communities.

Speaking up in Nova Scotia is always not easy. Gawad has been told that she is too gloomy, too loud, too difficult. But she refuses to be silenced. There were times when she feared that she'd lose her job or hurt her own reputation but she persevered — all because, according to her account, of the “glimpse of change” she saw in those moments.

“Just being told that this is not gonna go anywhere; all you're gonna do is hurt yourself; you're gonna hurt your reputation. Going through it and knowing that that has created an impact is what motivates me. It's what inspires me to become who I am.”

Personal journey

Gawad, originally from Libya, arrived in Halifax just over a decade ago as an international student. She says she has firsthand experience of the difficulties newcomers face when looking for help.

During her second year at Saint Mary's University, a civil war broke out in her home country. Both of her parents lost their jobs and she was stranded abroad.

“During that time, I really felt the struggle of being an immigrant, being a woman, and not being able to access support and feeling alone,” said Gawad.

Gawad said although she's a resourceful person and was able to tap into the community, she is aware that not everyone is able to do the same.

“Not all people from immigrant communities know how to do that because the system is so complex here, let alone no language (skill); let alone no community to bring you in. You'd feel so alone,” she said.

The personal struggle spurred her nto setting up her first social enterprise in Halifax: Project 360.

Through Project 360, she was able to empower 188 women in the first year and provide jobs to 21 women through entrepreneurship efforts.

The success of the project inspired Gawad to take her commitment to a global level. Soon, she found an opportunity in Uganda working with Reach One Touch One, an organization that supports senior citizens and their dependents in the remote villages of Kabale and Mukono.

For the following year, Gawad carried on with her work to help immigrant women to settle in Canada and continued with her passion by pursuing a master's degree in global health at McMaster University.

Upon graduation, she returned to Halifax and joined YMCA as their newcomer co-ordinator.

Going through it and knowing that that has created an impact is what motivates me. It's what inspires me to become who I am.” Sylvia Gawad

Sylvia Gawad talks about her passion for helping newcomers at the Halifax Social Network event. - Contributed

Nova Scotia has over 6,000 non-profits, twice the number of small businesses. And Gawad thinks that's too many and they should work together instead of “working in silos.”

“If your mandate is to help people elevate people, then why are people year over a year still accessing your services?”

Gawad continued to sit on different boards to revamp the structure of the nonprofits but left the YMCA and joined another social enterprise, Placemaking 4G, where she does a variety of things to connect the dots between immigrants and employers.

But one would be wrong if they think Gawad will stop pushing boundaries and moving forward.

“I can't even predict what that girl's gonna do. That's how I feel about her,” said Gillivan.

Lu Xu, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Chronicle Herald