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Cosmopolis Toronto: 195 Countries in One Backyard

Cosmopolis Toronto: Palestine
Abdel Raouf, born in Silat El Daher, Palestine | Colin Boyd Shafer

A collaboration between Link TV and TAL, "Big Cities" showcases community-driven solutions for global urban challenges. Watch this and many other stories in our full episodes on "Big Cities,"  exclusively on Link TV.

"Cosmopolis Toronto" was born from a desire to explore and celebrate the diversity of Toronto, where over half of the inhabitants have migrated from other countries. In 2014, Colin Boyd Shafer completed this yearlong photography project, in which he photographed one person from every country who now resides in Toronto. According to The Globe and Mail, 320,000 people moved to Canada between July 2015 and July 2016 — the highest number since 1971. Shafer set out to demonstrate multicultural pride in his adopted city, and what he found was a rich world of stories from the 195 people he interviewed, giving him an intimate glimpse at the globe from his backyard.

Cosmopolis Toronto: Cuba
While touring with a famous Cuban band through Japan in 2008, a Cuban government official threatened Yosvani with punishment  for casually mentioning the negative impact of Hurricane Gustav on his grandmother's home. He contacted friends for help and during a layover in Toronto on his way back, he fled. Yosvani has never returned home ever since. | Colin Boyd Shafer

Through crowd funding, Shafer was able to work on this project full time. His efforts have resulted in a limited-edition book, a presentation at TEDxToronto, and features in such publications as National Geographic and The Wall Street Journal. The exhibitions and events associated with the project Shafer proudly calls “the United Nations without politicians.”

Increased diversity isn’t exclusive to Canada. Rather, one can often find someone to connect with in the most mundane places — in line at the grocery store, riding the subway, or even in the classroom. Shafer says: “One mistake people make, and I probably made this when I was in my early 20s, is thinking that you need to go travel the world or hear stories of the world to find yourself. Whereas, if we just spent a little more time talking to the people around us, we would probably learn a lot more.”

When Shafer tells people he’s from Canada during his travels, he’s told he has the “Canadian look.” In reality, Shafer is a first generation Canadian, as his grandparents emigrated from the U.K. He likes to use his platform to dispel similar myths about what makes for a true representative of any country. When taking to social media and — quite literally — to the streets to find his subjects, he imposed no stipulations except that the participants were born in the country they represented. This open criteria didn’t sit well with some: “I got a little bit of hate mail, or people phoning me and saying, ‘This person that you chose doesn’t represent us.’ That is not something I want to entertain.” Instead, Shafer wanted to create a space where people were celebrated just for being human beings, not as “model countrymen.”

Cosmopolis Toronto: Burkina Faso
Michael wanted to be photographed in the ring at Toronto Kickboxing and Muay Thai Academy (TKMT) gym, where he spends much of his free time, because the combat sport has changed his life forever. He takes on an unofficial role as ambassador to Burkina Faso because many people have never heard of the location, culture, or people of his home country.  | Colin Boyd Shafer

Immigration workers and those who compile demographic data have told Shafer that "Cosmopolis Toronto" has helped more than just its subjects and viewers. The professionals, often with limited time and resources, appreciate a reference point that highlights individual stories. “I think they’re appreciative of the fact that statistics can only go so far,” Shafer says. “When you’ve got individual stories that can paint a picture, from a Toronto-centric point of view or a Canadian-centric point of view, it’s hard to deny Toronto’s incredible diversity.” Shafer’s work helps challenge media portrayals, specifically those in the entertainment industry, that provide an often inaccurate and unbalanced view of a particular people or region. 

While Shafer considers himself a photographer and not an expert on immigration law, his Master of Science degree in the political economy of violence, conflict and development from the University of London has provided him an educational background with which to analyze the structures of various countries. “I really feel strongly about judging a society by how it treats its lowest socioeconomic members,” he says. He admires Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, for “his ideas about pedestrian space and the inclusion of all peoples in the city, specifically those with the least affluence.” He also looks to Costa Rica, which abolished its army in 1949: “There are so many issues that we could solve so easily if we just put a fraction of the funding [in the right places] that we [currently] put towards things that maybe are a little more problematic and only benefit the one percent.”

“There are so many issues that we could solve so easily if we just put a fraction of the funding [in the right places] that we [currently] put towards things that maybe are a little more problematic and only benefit the one percent.”

The political climate has changed even in the three years since Shafer completed his series. With an increasing number of refugees fleeing Syria, as well as continued political unrest and migration from such countries as Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia, Cuba, and Somalia, "Cosmopolis Toronto" is as relevant as ever. Shafer says, “At any point in time, in reality, especially with the state of our world today, any of us could be in a situation where we’re seeking asylum or needing to find a new home.” Shafer strongly believes that countries are only made better by immigration and diversity, not worse. He hopes that Toronto will continue to welcome those seeking asylum. Canadians who blend in, like Shafer, “would see that so many of the things that drove great waves of migration in the past are driving great waves of migration today. Things like rapid urbanization, joblessness, poverty, and conflict.” 

Cosmopolis Toronto: Bangladesh
Originally from Bangladesh, Nadia explains how Toronto is "the first place [she] called home.” Since her family moved a lot when she was a child, she lived in places such as Botswana and the U.S. before arriving in Toronto. As a new resident of what she calls a gentrified neigbhorhood, she feels guilty but also feels at home among other immigrants.  |  Colin Boyd Shafer

Shafer encourages educators in any country to use "Cosmopolis Toronto" in their lesson plans, whether to explore photography, introduce a focus in immigration, or even just provide a jumping off point for personal essays. After all, the power of the project is its ability to break down barriers and give voice to that which might otherwise be left unspoken. Shafer’s subject from Iraq, for example, held up a picture of herself and her sister from a refuge camp in Saudi Arabia. She told Shafer, “This is the first time that I’m showing this to anybody outside of my immediate family. When I moved to Canada this wasn’t something that came up.” She had quickly assimilated herself to the culture around her and had felt ashamed of her past. Shafer recalls, “Then, becoming older and a little bit wiser and reflecting back, she said, ‘I’m actually proud of this. This is something I’m proud of.’”

“The voices in opposition need to be louder than the voices that come from that small minority of angry people.”

Soon, Shafer will be traveling throughout the U.S. for a new project, Taking Toronto to the World, which is currently in its beginning stages and will feature migration stories in each state. It’s a project and a celebration that is sorely needed in Trump’s America. Referring to right wing nationalists in both the U.S. and Canada, Shafer says, “The voices in opposition to that need to be louder than the voices that come from that small minority of angry people.” With his heart ever in Toronto, he leaves the following message for Canadian hopefuls: “Anyone who is looking to migrate to Canada would be part of a long history of migration. Anyone who was opposed to their migration — unless you’re a first migrations person — would be missing the point. Because everything that’s there was built on the backs of immigrants. It’s like the legacy lives on.”

Top image: Abdel Raouf was born to parents who had lead difficult lives. His father sold gasoline and his mother picked fruits and vegetables. When the occupation was at its height he decided to leave Palestine. at 15 years old, he wanted to pursue an education with the hope of eventually finding a job that could support his parents and 10 siblings. After studying and working in Egypt, Kuwait, and Spain, his family was finally granted asylum in Canada. | Colin Boyd Shafer

Cosmopolis Toronto: Syria
Fadi left Syria to seek an education in Israel but when he was unable to enter the country, he studied in Italy and Lebanon to prepare for priesthood. This path slowed when his parents needed help financially, so he moved to Toronto to model and ended up working in construction. In this city, he found the Capuchin Franciscans and has been living communally with priests and brothers at a Franciscan house ever since. Fadi considers Toronto home because he believes that this was God’s plan for him.  |  Colin Boyd Shafer
 Cosmopolis Toronto: North Korea
When Jina's father was reported for criticizing the government, her family was forced to move outside of the city center. Due to the poverty there, Jina’s mother encouraged her to leave, saying it was the only way she could have a future. Leaving her identification behind to support a lie about her dying in a car accident, she braved the freezing December waters and swam across the border to China. She met her husband at a Korean church and they both fled to Toronto with a Chinese passport and flight tickets purchased by friends. |  Colin Boyd Shafer
Cosmopolis Toronto: Guatemala
Erick left Guatemala during the political turmoil of the 1980s. While living in Mexico he heard about the "Sanctuary Movement" and it assisted him in planning his journey out of Mexico. Upon entering the U.S., he spent two years traveling to 42 states to share his first-hand experience surviving as a refugee. Following a long circuitous journey, Erick arrived in Toronto as a political refugee after being denied refugee status by the Netherlands and the U.S. Erick says Toronto has always had a special place in his heart. |  Colin Boyd Shafer
Cosmopolis Toronto: Sierra Leone
A civil war erupted in Sierra Leone when Mbalia was five and under very harsh conditions her father escaped to The Gambia, where the rest of the family joined him within months. In 2002 her family was accepted into Canada as protected persons under a UN resettlement program. Mbalia explains how Toronto is where her family has found safety, comfort and stability as they rebuilt their lives.  |  Colin Boyd Shafer
Cosmopolis Toronto: Honduras
After experiencing unbearable discrimination in Honduras, Sayra researched the largest LGBT community in Canada. She decided to move to Toronto over Montreal because she was more comfortable with the English language. This city has provided her with many opportunities that she wouldn’t have had back home, including marrying her partner Eliza and establishing a family. |  Colin Boyd Shafer
Cosmopolis Toronto: United Arab Emirates
A divorce from an abusive husband became the catalyst for Sahar's new life. Sahar decided to follow her dream and pursue a career in which she can help people, specifically women and children. She has found the freedom of religion, liberty to pursue an education, and power to prevent violence against women in Toronto, which she calls a “genuine city that does not revolve around materialism.” |  Colin Boyd Shafer

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