#OneEastToronto – Meet Shabnam Meraj

Shabnam Meraj smiling with a dark blue border.

#OneEastToronto shares the faces of East Toronto Health Partners (ETHP), a group of more than 100 community, primary care, home care, hospital and social services organizations in East Toronto working together with community members to better connect local care and services.

In this special edition of #OneEastToronto, we’re sharing the stories of the people who play an important role in ensuring community health ambassadors have the tools they need to connect local residents with health, social and community services.

Meet Shabnam Meraj, Community Health Worker at Health Access Thorncliffe Park.

“Fifteen years ago, I arrived in Canada with my husband and daughter, leaving behind many memories in Pakistan and Qatar. While living in these countries, I worked as a librarian – a career that brought me so much joy. What made it truly special was the chance it gave me to engage with communities and connect with people. I was excited to find an opportunity similar to this when I arrived in Canada.

When my family and I first arrived, I never anticipated the level of difficulty we would face finding housing because many landlords required an employment letter and credit history.

It was also incredibly tough since we didn’t have any friends or family to lean on and my daughter was just three years old. This added to the stress of our situation. Finding a job proved to be a difficult task, leaving me feeling uncertain and unsure about the next steps to take. It was during this period of uncertainty that I decided to prioritize my language development by enrolling in language classes through the Toronto District School Board.

After two years of settling into our new life in Canada, we were blessed with the arrival of our son, which added an additional layer of responsibility. With the expenses associated with raising a child, the pressure to find stable employment became even more pressing.

Despite the challenges, I never gave up. In 2008, I first began volunteering at TNO – The Neighbourhood Organization. While I volunteered, I continued working toward building the life I wanted by attending college and making meaningful connections in my neighbourhood. Volunteering in Thorncliffe Park and Flemingdon Park became a turning point for me. It provided me with the confidence and direction I needed to continue my journey.

Eventually, I got a job as a settlement counsellor in Mississauga where I worked for about six years. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, everything quickly changed. One of these changes was the shift to remote work. This meant I no longer had to commute to Mississauga, which gave me more time to spend with my family. With the extra time we all had, I started thinking about how my daughter could start volunteering in the community. Because of my prior connection with TNO, I started my search there.

I came across a community health ambassador role that seemed like a perfect fit for her. She applied for the position, and to my surprise, the coordinator reached out to me as well, asking if I had an interest in becoming an ambassador. At first, I was hesitant because of my full-time job, but the coordinator reassured me that any time I could offer would be greatly appreciated.

Encouraged by the coordinator’s words, I took on the role of a community health ambassador alongside my daughter. We were actively involved in creating awareness around COVID-19 prevention, treatment and vaccination clinics in the community. One way I did this was by sharing personal stories so people could relate to me and feel comfortable asking questions. I worked hard to build relationships with community members – whether they were a newcomer or someone that has lived in the community for years.

After two months of building these strong connections and engaging with community members, I became a community health ambassador lead. For me, being an ambassador lead is all about building trust, communicating with people and being passionate about improving access to health and social services in the community.

As an ambassador lead, I try my best to be available to community members so they know there is always someone they can reach out to for support. This was especially important when COVID-19 vaccine clinics started occurring more frequently. For example, if there was a vaccine clinic being held on a Sunday and someone needed help booking an appointment, it was important for me to be readily available to help them.

I also try to answer everyone’s questions to my best ability. If I don’t know the answer to something, I will do research and get back to them with an appropriate, accurate response. To me, this is important because I know what it’s like to have struggled and felt alone when I first moved to Canada. I don’t want anyone to feel the way I did.

As I continue to learn new skills and build relationships in the community, I’m constantly reflecting on how far I’ve come and how grateful I am for the opportunity to help those that may be facing challenges accessing health and social services in the community.”

Get to know Shabnam more through a quick Q&A!

  • Cooking or baking? Cooking! I love cooking and my children love my food.
  • As a kid, what was your favourite game to play? I loved playing outside with my friends when I was younger. I also enjoyed watching cricket.
  • If you were an animal, what would you like to be and why? Morning bird. I love their chirps in the early morning. The sounds help me start my day off positively.
  • What’s one achievement you’re most proud of? My growth in my career. Despite the challenges I faced, I never gave up trying to improve my skills and working toward my goals. I’m so proud of how far I’ve come.

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