STRAIGHT TALK by Hafeez Khan

Mississauga has a heart.Both metaphorically and literally. Metaphorically because it has absorbed hundreds of thousands of new Canadians in its bosom. Given them a home they can call their own, a sense of belonging, a welcoming fresh start in life.

Literally because this sprawling suburban City has a focal point, the heart of Mississauga, City Centre.

It houses the well designed and graceful City Hall, a spacious Civic Centre and a Celebration Square. In this Square, diverse communities meet to celebrate Canada and their own events. What a beautiful depiction of Canadian diversity. It houses one of the largest shopping malls in Canada, appropriately called Square One.

Mississauga was founded in 1968. From a small community, it started to expand and flourish under its 5th Mayor Hazel McCallion in 1978. She served in that position for 36 years before retiring in 2014. She won 12 terms, and led the dynamic growth of the city. Nicknamed “Hurricane Hazel” for her outspoken style, she has emerged as a national icon. She was succeeded by Mayor Bonnie Crombie, now in her second term, successfully carrying on the tempo created by her predecessor.

The skyline of Mississauga Centre is dominated by tall imposing buildings, elegantly designed and regulated by the City Planners. The throbbing lifestyle has been embraced by all generations.I have experienced it first hand having had an office there for many years. This is the core of the federal riding called Mississauga Centre.

Mississauga Centre is a happy mix of old and new Canadians. It has a population of 125,000, with 87,000 registered voters. These voters comprise of Caucasians 30%, South Asians 20%, Chinese 14%, Middle East 8% and Filipinos 7%. This culturally diverse community elected Omar Alghabra as their MP in 2015 and he is seeking re-election on October 21st.

Omar Alghabra is gracious and polite, bordering on shyness for the onlookers. This is till you look him in the eye and discover the resolve, determination and compassion oozing out. A close friend for nearly 2 decades, at one point he was my MP. This was before Erin Mills and Mississauga Centre were carved out of the Erindale Riding. We sat down this week at his campaign office for a chat.

Omar Alghabra was born in Saudi Arabia to Syrian parents. He grew up in the twin cities of Dammam and Alkhobar in the Eastern Province. He completed his high school there and moved back to Syria with his parents and three sisters in 1986. He moved to Canada in 1989 at the age of 19. His dad passed away in 2015 and his mom continues to live in Damascus, braving all the turmoil.

Omar is an embodiment of what Canada offers to a young new immigrant with very limited resources determined to succeed. He chose to study engineering and earned his undergrad from Ryerson University in 1994. He worked night shifts at a donut shop and went to school during the day, slipping in a few hours of sleep when possible.

He states he learnt more about the hard realities of life and shared struggle of new Canadians working this “graveyard shift”. Rather than wilt in the face of tough odds, he pursued his dream to progress in life. He worked for various engineering contractors and at the same time joined York University to earn an MBA. Clearly he is a bright example for the younger generation.

Sharing his personal experiences, I asked Omar what is the driving force that led him to dedicate his life to public service? He went quiet for a while, reflecting. When he spoke his eyes were lit with compassion and emotions. He stated his efforts revolve around how to make our society inclusive for those who are marginalized and feel as outsiders. He went onto to explain that as a kid till adulthood, he was always treated as an outsider. In Saudi because he was a Syrian, in Syria because he had lived away with no friends, in Canada as a young Middle Easterner groping with challenges.

Omar channeled his heightened sensitivity positively. He became active in community work. He served on the board of Canadian Arab Federation and the Toronto Star Community Editorial Board in 2002. These positions gave him a lot of exposure, especially in media. He realized he can have an impact if he participates in mainstream politics. He found that the Liberal platform shared his views. He worked with the Liberal Party as a volunteer. His focus and deep involvement won him the Liberal MP nomination in Erindale Mississauga in 2005 where he went onto to be elected. As part of opposition he was the Liberal Immigration Critic and promoted Mississauga causes. He went onto to be the Liberal Natural Resources Critic, strongly opposing Harper’s firing of the Nuclear Safety Commissioner.

Omar lost marginally by 300 votes in 2008 in the face of the Harper tsunami. He was re-elected in 2015 by a landslide. He served with distinction as Parliamentary Secretary in Foreign Affairs and International Trade. We have interacted on multiple occasions mostly discussing politics or other social issues. This was the first time I got an insight into the man. He elaborated on the value system that drives him.

Omar stands for values of integrity, honesty and fairness. He works hard to be inclusive and accessible to his voters through his well-run Office. Having watched him for nearly two decades, he walks the talk. He backs Justin Trudeau who is a rare voice in the Western world standing up for the underdog. He shares Trudeau’s views and policies on Environment,support for middle class and his compassion for all faiths and ethnicities. Omar backs Trudeau’s economic policies that created a million jobs and has Canada at the lowest unemployment levels recorded. I wish both of them best of luck on October 21st.

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