Markham resident Meera Bala is a teacher with the Toronto District School Board and also a Tamil-Canadian author and publisher of children’s books.
Her latest book, Palm Trees Under Snow, which is based her own immigration experience, has received lots of wonderful reviews.
The book is about a little girl, Maya, that lived through the war in Sri Lanka and then moved to Canada to face more challenges, such as language barriers and bullying. “It is about diversity, inclusion and a sense of belonging,” Bala said.
Growing up, Maya was surrounded by palm trees, the ocean breeze, and a big extended family. Maya’s life takes a turn as she witnesses her beautiful island being destroyed by the war. Her parents then decide to immigrate to another country to find peace and safety. When she arrives in the new country, Maya can’t speak the language and no one at school wants to be her friend.
Just like Maya, Bala immigrated to Canada when she was nine years old. “I also experienced lots of discrimination and bullying when I first came here.”
In 1980s, there were not so many Asian immigrants. Classmates at school often shouted at Bala: “Go back to your country!” Yet she didn't know how to fight back.
“I once cried and asked my parents to go back home, but they say, ‘This is our new home, and if you work hard, things will get better.’”
Bala had to gradually accept this fact and tried to stand up for herself by learning English. So the next time she met those bullies, she plucked up her courage and told them, “I'm not going back. This is my new home.” It felt great to fight back in English and it was the first time that Bala felt the power of standing up.
As a Grade 4-5 teacher for the past 20 years, Bala has seen many immigrant children at school facing similar problems.
“There are a large percentage of Asian students in my class; whenever I hear some kids saying that taking ESL is lower than the regular classes, I will share my experience with them — I didn’t speak English when I first came to Canada, but look at me now: I am a teacher; you can be as successful as me,” she added.
Bala realized the lack of books that represent the Asian and other ethnic communities in school; therefore, her mission is to write books that represent a variety of backgrounds.
She believes that it’s important for children to make connections with the lives of the characters and see themselves represented in stories. “We need to get more multicultural and diverse books as Palm Trees Under Snow, which is for children ages 7 to 11 years, into the hands of our young readers.”
These stories need to be passed down to the next generation of children, Bala said, especially in York Region, where there are so many children of immigrant parents.
Recently some attacks targeting the Asian community happened in York Region, and police believe they are hate-motivated. In Bala’s opinion, if we want to eliminate discrimination, children must be educated from an early age.
“It’s OK to be different; we should learn and accept each other, and live in peace and harmony.”
“My story talks about the plight of immigration and struggle with identity and belonging. I hope to stress the importance of empowerment through education and celebrates the power of hope and hard work,” Bala said.
She also recommended another children's book, Eyes That Kiss In the Corners by Joanna Ho, which tells a story about a young Asian girl learning to love and celebrate her Asian-shaped eyes. “I think the sentiment we want to convey through the books is the same: encourage empathy and compassion and address the themes of diversity, inclusion, and tolerance.”
Scarlett Liu is a federally funded Local Journalism Initiative reporter at the Economist & Sun